Scott Walker 5 Easy Pieces Review

Released 2003.  

BBC Review

Ostensibly an MOR interpreter of material, Walker was no ordinary chicken-in-a-basket...

Chris Jones 2003

Someone at Universal is having a laugh. Five Easy Pieces? This is surely the most ironic title of the year. Despite the former Scott Engel's exemplary crooning ability and his propensity for loungey arrangements, his was never an easy career to sum up. Let's not forget that this is a man who can still be heard regularly on Radio 2; yet his last two albums could easily be described as virtually impenetrable. And how many artists (other than fellow recluse Syd Barrett) could number David Bowie, Brian Eno and Julian Cope among their fans?

Theming Walker's output over five discs has already led some purists to bemoan any departure from the sacred texts. Received wisdom tells us that Scott's four, numbered solo albums between 1967 and 1969 are the place to really experience the man in all his genre-busting glory. Yet to take this approach would be to miss a vast swathe of classic angst from both his Walker Brothers days and the thirty five years since. With this in mind the work is split by either subject matter or source. Thus we get one disc of love songs; one of existential drama; one of movie work; one of 'difficult' pieces and one of European and American material. Phew indeed...

Ostensibly an MOR interpreter of material, Walker was no ordinary chicken-in-a-basket club turn, and his Europhile, Left Bank leanings proved his downfall. Assured his idol status and granted his own peak-time TV variety show, he proceeded to throw some very extreme curveballs. His first solo album was warning enough. It contained the Jacques Brel number ''Amsterdam'' (featured on the Euro disc along with other Brel and Weill classics) and its mention of pimps and prostitutes hardly fitted his hipper, younger Jack Jones profile. More Brel numbers followed along with strange, twisted kitchen sink dramasand other non-family favourites, all set to Wally Stott's magisterial strings. By Scott 4 he was composing all his own work and chart success was sacrificed for material concerning Bergman movies and Stalinism.

Yet the intellectual versus populist contradictions in his career meant that he still attempted something akin to pop material, even toning down his love of Euro cinema to produce the saccharine The Moviegoer with its Legrand and Mancini tunes. By the mid-seventies attempts to balance Walker Brothers reunions with his insularity and artistic frustration led to him dropping off the radar almost completely. Abandoning the life that had made him a pin-up, his rare appearances in the studio now yielded music that was totally uncompromising and uncompromised.

The contradiction for the listener is that both sides of Scott offer wonderful rewards. A song as carefully rendered as ''Johanna'' (from Scott 2) rates with the great performances of Sinatra with Billy May, while work as angular as ''The Electrician'' resonates with confrontational integrity, almost daring you to turn away. His stature as a writer is confirmed by the tracks completed for Ute Lemper. ''Scope J'' and ''Lullaby'' are simply astounding in their depth, complexity and understanding of Northern European conventions.

Of course plenty of this stuff straddles both camps. Classics such as ''Montague Terrace (In Blue)'', ''It's Raining Today'' and ''Big Louise'' all approach the listener like ticking time bombs of gritty realism smuggled inside lush arangements. For someone so associated with existential misery there's even a fair smattering of humour. Just listen to the self-pitying narrator of ''Time Operator''.

So, this is a brave and noble attempt to sum up the career of a man who, by his very existence, defies summation. For newcomer and aficionado alike, this is no easy ride, but a totally worthwhile one...

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