Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Making Space for Scott Walker's "Tilt"

I became interested in Scott Walker a few months ago after streaming the documentary “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” on Netflix.   Scott Walker is a fascinating artist, and for those interested, this documentary will certainly pique your interest further.  To make a real long story short, Walker was a 60s teen idol who decided that fame was not really his bag of chips.  At the peak of his popularity, he retired from the public eye and became a bit of a hermit.  Since the late 70s, he has released a solo album once a decade, each one increasingly avant-garde.  You are probably already familiar with him, however, by way of The Walker Brothers, who were giving the Beatles a run for their money with this little ditty (which became virally popular again through the recent zombie miniseries “The Walking Dead”).

The orchestral palate and reverbed vocals of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and many of the other Walker Brothers songs has a darkly stereotypical 60s studio ambience.  This acoustic background became the kernel for Walker’s unapologetic individualism and patient perfectionism, although it took significantly different forms in the following decades.


Tilt” is his entry from the 90s, and, admittedly, it has been a particularly resistant listen, so much so that I was toying with the idea that I liked Scott Walker’s artistic ideology more than I liked his musical output.  As I stated previously, however, the majority of my listening takes place during solitary time in the car.  Driving is an activity that is pretty well-suited for listening, but the car is a flawed listening environment.  In many cases, the sound of surrounding traffic and the car itself can be tuned out as white noise, but recordings whose strongest attributes lie in subtle ambience and atmospherics are difficult to fully appreciate.  To be fair to "Tilt," I thought I should devote a small portion of my Spring Break listening to it in a more controlled and hi-fi (more signal than noise) acoustic environment.

Sitting down and listening to “Tilt” in my living room with libretto in hand was a much different experience.  Although superficially it seems a minimalistic and bare-bones affair, a close, focused listen is mesmerizing.  Throughout “Tilt,” industrialist clicks and tinkles combine with slow, ominously pulsating drums and bass that swirl in fractalized eddies of echoes within echoes, as if the entire album was recorded in an abandoned underground subway station.  In this setting, Walker juxtaposes impressionistic images with his lyrics, resulting in an unsettling soundscape that sometimes borders on the nightmarish.  This song was my favorite from the car, and it took on new dimensions in the relative silence of my house.

There were moments when I related to “Tilt” in unique, inexplicable ways during that listen, and I can’t deny a newfound respect for the album that I hope will carry over into future listening.  My personal favorite from “Tilt” is still the sublime “Farmer in the City,” but because of Walker’s reclusive nature, footage of him playing this song live seems pretty rare.  In fact, there is very little footage of him publicly performing his solo work at all.  I did, however, find this little gem of him performing the Buckleyesque “Rosary.”

“Tilt” is hard listening - I have had to work to hear it.  I think that it is Walker’s intention, however, to reward the listener who is willing to invest this sort of attention to his work.  To rise to this task, I had to break away my usual listening habits and create a space that allowed Walker’s mastery of recorded ambience to come through.  This changed my perspective in other ways, as well: after listening to “Tilt,” I got in the car to go to aikido class and the track “BTTLS” from Battles’ “B EP” came up on the player.  The soundscape on that track seemed oddly reminiscent of what “Tilt” is all about, and now I find myself wondering what else I am missing in the hum of traffic.

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