In the two decades preceding Tilt, Scott Walker had made all of one album: 1984's Climate of Hunter. That album marked Walker's first bold departure from his buried history as bona fide pop star in England, finding the flawed romantic who'd authored the masterwork-as-fiasco, 1969's Scott 4, grown older, stranger, more taciturn, and less interested in the old familiar forms.
But where Climate of Hunter had a sense of momentum to it —if not exactly a swagger, then at least a kind of kinetic energy— Tilt arrived a decade later as an explosion of negative energy; a suspended stasis in which nothing —not percussion, not voice, not church organ— appeared to have any rhythmic direction, any sense of physicality or structure.
Which is not to say that the compositions on the album are amorphous blobs of pitchless static, hissing aimlessly like escaping gas, but that they somehow feel that way even when there's meter and melody. Scott Walker's return from the wilderness was, in many ways, no real return: instead, he lured unsuspecting listeners into that wilderness.
Even as the compositions completely razed away any connections to pop or rock'n'roll or even experimental rock, the most unsettling element of Walker's terrifying sound-world was the sound of his voice. Back in the '60s, an American transplant on English shores, Walker was a balladeer, a belting baritone that could make MOR schlock sound transcendent, and could make his own ambitious kitchen-sink dramas play resound with Shakespearean heft. But here, Walker's voice sounds tiny, worried, squeezed; uncomfortably sitting in a higher register, filled with mercurial quivers.
"Do I hear 21, 21, 21...? I'll give you 21, 21, 21..." Walker sings, with ghostly, ghastly effect on opening, the Sinfonia of London sending striking string parts as "Farmer in the City (Remembering Pasolini)" plays like a half-implied lieder bouncing around an empty concert hall. Walker's tribute to the late Italian poet/filmmaker doesn't dredge up Pasolini's gruesome death —unless those cattle-call evocations of 21 represent how many times he was run over— but appropriating snatches of Pasolini's poetry and frightfully intoning them has the feeling of a man narrating his memories from beyond the pale; or, perhaps, his life flashing before his eyes.
The lyrics remain, throughout, elusive but evocative, an eternally eerie collection of odd motifs: despots, displaced refugees, deserters, dentists; tapped out in tiny morsels of morse-code poetry sung in a voice that sounds like an actual phantom in an old opera house. There's grandeur here —woodwinds, the Sinfonia, a church hall organ, Walker's voice itself— but there's always this aching space in the middle; conveying the aching void of existence by leaving a void in its middle.
Record Label: Fontana
Release Date: May 8, 1995