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Bleak 80's New Wave album from Scott.
on 5 October 2005
I suppose the sound that Scott is most synonymous with is that big, doomy orchestral style, riddled with existentialist lyrics and a baritone croon. However, devoted Walker fans are well aware of a different Scott - a Scott that has consecutively strived to sound both contemporary and experimental - mixing those bleak, existential lyrics with a bleak and desolate sound. The moment of truth for THIS Scott could be seen as the songs he contributed to the final Walker Brother's album, Nite Flights. The sound there seemed to suggest disco, with nods to certain mid-to-late-seventies post punk acts, which, if nothing else, demonstrated Scott's interest in contemporary music - as well as more classical or experimental acts - a factor that would really go towards the formation of this album.
The songs on Nite Flights would further Scott's bleak world view, building on a decade long depression and a bout of alcoholism following the decline in his celebrity, the failure of his initial masterpiece Scott 4 and those early 70's wilderness years, in which he seemed to blindly record a barrage of ill-advised country covers that did nothing but diminish his reputation as a supposed-perfectionist-genius. The content of the songs would touch on notions of death, depression, madness, internal angst, war atrocities and political torture, all the while retaining a sound that developed a cohesive and, to some extent, wholly cohesive atmosphere that complimented those austere Beckett-like lyrics perfectly. If anything, those factors would become a sort of template for this album and, to a further extent, his follow up masterwork, Tilt.
Climate of Hunter begins ominously, with a moment of silence that is broken by a tolling bell somewhere in the distance. Stray keyboard notes bleed in, stark and piercing, as the bass begins to resonate in the background. The sound is desolate, with everything sounding distant and muted. Then Scott's vocals come in, haunted and leaning towards that alien operatic sound that would become so prevalent on the album yet to come, as he breathes "this is how you disappear, out between midnight". The instrumentation sounds like it's being played in reverse, with the cold and sparse synths adding to the aural desolation as the bass suggests a sound more akin to Joy Division or early Cure (think Faith or Seventeen Seconds... though later tracks suggest Pornography and even elements of Disintegration). This was Scott moving further and further away from orchestral ballads and towards something more formless, with the fusion of words and music suggesting an almost improvised quality (though this was not the case), bringing to mind a robotic re-interpretation of Astral Weeks as written by David Lynch (it could easily be the soundtrack to Eraserhead) whilst pre-empting Talk Talk's vastly superior improvised epic Laughing Stock. Later lyrics seem fragmented and cut up, with lines like "called up under valleys of torches and stars... foot, knee, shaggy belly, face... famous hindlegs" which is both darkly comic and utterly terrifying. As are lines like "freezing in red, bent over, his ice skin... the insomniac gnaws in the on-offs", which could really be about absolutely anything (and this is only the first track).
After Rawhide we get Dealer, which continues the bleak and suffocating sound whilst simultaneously drifting off into the realms of synth pop. This jars with the song's intense 4/4 rhythm and shows Walker (and co-producer Peter Walsh) willing to take bold and dramatic risks with song structure and the like. The lyrics come in, "cooling the hearts, cooling the plasma, keeping ice junkies packed hard on a seam... the other side of a prowler, the dead still search the living", deep stuff from a deep voice, broken by discordant instrumentation which takes in the swirling trumpet of Mark Isham and the spasmodic saxophone of Evan Parker (...more from him later). Track three is simply entitled 'Track Three' (continuing the unassuming nature of the album, as seen with the later tracks Five, Six and Seven), though the official subtitle is Delayed. Here we have more of those droning 80's keyboards, punctuated by Ray Russell's Fender guitar solos and interweaving vocal harmonies from Scott and 80's pop star Billy Ocean ("rock of cast-offs, burry me, hide my soul... sink us free"). This is probably my least favourite track of the album, as it represents everything I dislike about conventional early-80s rock (synthesisers, fretless bass, hollow production) and, as a mid-album turning point, it has dated the overall sound of the record quite badly. Sleepwalkers Woman pulls us back from the brink of MOR synth-noise, with one of Scott's most potent vocal work outs, with a return to that slow, bleak and languid style that bellies a break, mid-song, into a hyperactive instrumental freak out in which Peter van Hooke's drums are punished with an almost religious intensity.
The following tracks stick to a similar course, with both Track Five (It's a Starving) and Track Seven (Stump of a Downer) continuing the bleak, depressing New Wave sound with Scott's intense nonsensical lyrics ("all those arms in the gullies, chewed through at the wrists"), whilst Track Six (Say I) strays back a little towards that dated 80's type sound that, if nothing else, at least points fondly towards the music of the time (in particular, bands like Simple Minds and Avalon-era Roxy Music) and does have another great Parker sax-solo. The biggest surprise of the album though, comes last, with a cover of the song Blanket Role Blues, as written by Kenyon Hopkins and Tennessee Williams and performed acoustically by Scott with accompaniment from Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler.
It's a gentle, warm and reflective climax to a cold, distant and austere record that really demands attention from the listener. For me, the album is less relevant than Scott's later and much greater milestone, Tilt... partly down the dated production and use of instrumentation found here. But this is still a fine, if somewhat difficult and uninviting album, filled with some stirring moments and Walker's always intuitive attention to detail.