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Scott Walker - ’Til the Band Comes In

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Artist: Scott Walker

Album: ’Til the Band Comes In

Label: Water

Review date: Oct. 24, 2008

Since Scott Walker’s 1984 renaissance with Climate of Hunter, many critical re-evaluations have over-praised his solo work from the late ’60s and early ’70s. This can make one’s first encounters with Scott 3 or Scott 4 a bit anticlimactic. Although they feature Walker’s richly expressive voice, musically they are fairly conventional. Repeated listening reveals the subtle beauty of the arrangements and of the songs, both Walker originals and cover versions, with Walker’s lyrics often being particularly innovative… but many listeners never get that far.

’Til the Band Comes In does not measure up to its Scott predecessors. Following the commercial failure of Scott 4, Walker hedged his bets between innovation and showbiz, ending up on a hotchpotch that didn’t fully satisfy anyone. It was promptly swept under the carpet along with various other Walker horrors from the mid ’70s.

The album opens with 10 Walker originals and ends with five covers. Conventional ‘Scott-as-genius’ wisdom would assert the superiority of the originals, viewing them as an integrated suite of songs. (And they do open with “Prologue” and close with an epilogue, “The War Is Over.”) The reality is more complex; some parts of the song suite are sublime, others are embarrassingly bad. The cover versions span a narrower spectrum, from quite good to dull. Do we really need to hear Walker sing “Reuben James”?

The suite’s opening prologue immediately sets the mood and engages the listener. Its combination of strings (a lone cello soon joined by sweeping strings) and sound effects (a dripping tap, children’s voices) creates a mood both melancholic and disquieting. The best songs here are slow-paced ballads that further that mood; the worst are up-tempo pieces that shatter it. Of the former, “Joe” is a downbeat reflection on old age, isolation and death, complete with cocktail jazz piano, “Long About Now” is delicately sung by Esther Ofarim (remember “Cinderella Rockerfella”? No? Don’t lose sleep over it), and the highlight is “The War Is Over,” with Walker’s voice at its poignant best.

By contrast, the bad songs here are among the worst Walker has recorded. The subtlety that characterizes his best work is replaced by a thumping heavy-handedness. “Time Operator” covers similar territory to “Joe,” and is potentially as good, but its opening sample of the speaking clock destroys any sense of discovery or slow revelation. The title track starts very promisingly before breaking into a Eurovision-style sing-along chorus.

Worst of all is “Jean the Machine,” a vaudeville jazz monstrosity in which the crass music matches the crassness of the lyrics. If Walker intended it a joke, he failed, which, honestly, wasn’t all that uncommon before his ’80s renaissance. Although this album contains plenty of failed experiments, at least Walker was experimenting rather than settling for the middle of the road.

By John Eyles

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