Known for his hit with hilariously-named outfit the Walker Brothers (none of them were brothers, Scott was the only Walker, they were British, he was American) "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," Walker has the kind of voice that could quiet a room with one note. A deep, full baritone that is bereft of any strain or exertion, Walker's strange, dark poetry breathes better with less instrumental frills.
Much contention lies in what makes a song "a song." I hate putting this shit into quotations, which should tell you what side of the fence I stubbornly root myself to. Walker's songs range from the traditional Soul verse/chorus style ("Get Behind Me", "Duchess"), to almost German Lied style ("Boy Child", "Angels of Ashes") bereft of any shift in structure. Walker extends himself further into country("Rhymes of Goodbye"), the poignant closer that goes from clumsy slide guitar verse to a soaring chorus. Although unfocused at times, you can feel Walker's confidence in every chord.
Walker's previous solo ventures were stuffed with echo-chambered strings and over-wraught arrangements. On 4 he manages to reign in the fluff, maintaining a tempermental balance between stripped down folk rock (acoustic guitars, bass, drums) and the 60's pop bombast of a string ensemble aided with backing vocals and church organ. Tracks like "Hero of the War" exemplify this approach to a T. The drums hammer out a Bo Diddley riff on the floor tom, eventually punctuated with a tambourine backbeat. The guitars ignore simple chords and drone on open shapes, lacking any real definition besides holding up the harmonic base of the piece. The string arrangement consists of small ensemble of violin and viola, whose swelling charts are doctored with a vintage phase effect.
Let me be honest in saying no great boundaries were broken (Walker saved that for 1995's avant-rock Tilt, but that's another review), but his mastery of 60's songwriting and his progression to linear song-writing make this a more than rewarding listen.
Besides clunker "Seventh Seal", Walker draws from a dark palette to construct his lyrics. Songs about Josef Stalin seemingly coming to back from the dead, cryptic passages evoking mythical creatures and dead cities, and most importantly, lyrics that were overwhelmingly melancholy, but not in a "hey, i'm sad, look at me crying" way. The darkness of the words pervert the sweetness of the arrangements to create a constant, sizzling tension that Walker channels into his delivery. My favorite lyric, from the second track "On Your Own Again", is a study of impact. The song is sung in past tense, as Walker laments a break-up. But the final line takes the listener back to the beginning, in which he imparts the bizarre feeling of ecstacy one feels at the start of a relationship:
Except when it began
I was so happy I didn't feel like
I broke up the lyric as the final verse dictates. The music slows and pauses, as apprehensive as the singer, evoking the exact rush of confusion and happiness the lyric expresses. Instead of saying he's no longer sad, he describes his happiness as an entirely alien emotion. Awesome.
There is, however, one stiff. "Seventh Seal" is exactly as it reads, a synopsis of Ingmar Bergman's film of the same name. Lyrically, it does what it's assigned, but I'm not that geeked out over that film (Wild Strawberries, now that's a different story). Musically, it's just an R'n'B beat with assorted percussion. Compositionally, the only moment of interest is the incredily awkward key change halfway through, which is so glaringly obvious that it defeats itself.
While shrouded in Spector-like orchestrations, the album has aged decently. The re-release includes a booklet of photos and lyrics, with no David Fricke bio or anything. I like Scott Walker for this very reason; he giveth, and he taketh away.