Sundog: Selected Lyrics

By Scott Walker

Introduction by Eimear McBride

Faber & Faber, £14.99

By Brian Morton

IF a line’s worth using, it’s worth using again. What Isaiah Berlin allegedly said about George Steiner is also true of Scott Walker: he is that very rare thing, a completely genuine charlatan. He is the Thomas Pynchon of popular music, to whom attaches that always problematic word: “reclusive”. He creates music of unbearable beauty and extreme ugliness, usually side-by-side. His output and reputation extend to the farthest reaches of the avant-garde, to the swoonsome pop he made in the 1960s with the Walker Brothers, which is when he traded in his own name, Noel Scott Engel, for a group identity. He briefly traded as Engel again, but that identity is now reserved for the copyright line (“pka Scott Walker”) to this selection of lyrics.

Walker’s two constituencies eye one another awkwardly. To fans of a certain age, he is the ultimate romantic, the lead voice on songs like The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More and Make It Easy On Yourself. To college-educated hipsters, who’ve read Berlin and Steiner, he is “professionally known as” the man who uses sides of meat and huge, custom-built chests as percussion devices and whose songs – if the word is adequate – deal with murder, totalitarianism, and obscure astronomical findings, all tricked out in rich but troubled orchestrations.

The basic narrative is familiar enough, especially since the release of the documentary film 30 Century Man. Walker, or Engel, comes out of the Mid-West, teams up with two other pretty boys, is A&R'd and groomed, and makes some classic pop that makes girls scream. But Scott, or Noel, dislikes having his clothes shredded. He wants left alone to read Rimbaud, listen to Jacques Brel LPs, study Gregorian chant, and work on his own brooding songs. After leaving the Walker Brothers, though there is to be a brief, and surprisingly successful, reunion, he makes four records of his own, called Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4. Fans argue like biblical scholars over the exact point when these became convincingly experimental. A lot of nonsense is talked about what are basically fine pop vehicles which happen to have mournful and solitary lyrics. That said, Duchess and It’s Raining Today, the first two items in Sundog, are hardly bubblegum. The former open with “It’s your bicycle bells / and your Rembrandt swells. / Your children alive and still breathing. / And your look of loss / as you come / makes me feel like a thief when you’re bleeding”, which is strong stuff for Radio One. After that comes Boy Child, which maybe represents the later Scott in larval form, and The Electrician, the last Walker Brothers single, which combines “moon/June” rhymes, “baby” melismas and a line as arresting as “He’s / drilling through / the Spiritus Sanctus / tonight”.

There is then an interlude, during which – to the embarrassment of his admirers – Walker made some Radio Two records, all five of them impeccably executed, using some of the best session musicians and arrangers around. They’re lovely, but it takes a certain contortion to declare them avant-garde. And then, after a decade-long hiatus, Walker releases Climate Of Hunter, an album of denatured country songs with some jazz flourishes. It’s a great record, not much represented in Sundog, but it only marks a beginning. A decade later, Tilt appears, ineffably strange and lovely, with lyrics that reference the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the trials of Adolf Eichmann and Queen Caroline.

Either it took us 10 years to assimilate Tilt, or it took Scott another 10 to finish The Drift, probably his masterpiece. This time, the subjects were even more recherché: the deaths of Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci in Milan; Elvis Presley’s ongoing conversation, in moments of despair, with his stillborn twin Jesse; the Bosnian massacres. An ongoing obsession with dictators would surface again in 2012 with The Day The 'Conducator’ Died, about the execution of Nicolae Ceau?escu, but the real pay-off of that track is that it is subtitled, with cheesy irony (An Xmas Song), in the same way that Patriot on Tilt is labelled “(a single)”, as if Walker were saying goodbye forever to his Top Of The Pops self.

No danger, even if it was still on air, of any of Scott’s songs ever making it on to that show again. By the time of the fearsome Bish Bosch in 2012, he was writing songs like SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) whose juxtapositions go well past surreal. After that, there’s just a sprinkle of material from Soused (they’re coming quicker now) and a sprinkle of “new songs” to which we don’t yet know the melody, including the titular Sundog. But here’s where a question has to be asked.

Though none of this material sounds exactly singalong to the uninitiated, it’s precisely that to acolytes. Any real Walker fan (ask one; they’re all over the place) will give you A Farmer In The City in a fair approximation of Scott’s keening vibrato baritone. Like any good songsmith he knows that if a line is worth using, it’s worth using again: “Do I hear / 21? / 21? / 21? / I’ll give you / 21 / 21 / 21.” But do those lines work on the page as well, now that Walker has joined Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Hughes, Heaney and Dunn on the Faber shelf? As McBride concedes, Walker is not a poet in the same way that Morrissey is not a poet. Good point, but possibly a bad example. How about Jim Morrison, who sometimes tried to turn Doors concerts into poetry readings? Or Leonard Cohen, who was a somewhat accidental performer? Or even Bob Dylan, who has a Nobel Prize that says he is a poet? Or even (where did he get to?) Pete Doherty of the Libertines and Babyshambles, who was being promised Nobel status by the unwary 10 years ago? I sometimes read Cohen’s Suzanne with students, to make the point that once you have heard the song sung, you somehow can’t get round the Scotch snap in the first line, and therefore can’t read “Suzanne takes you down ..." plainly.

Same problem here. Many of these lyrics have been reproduced, sometimes with footnotes in album booklets, and it is nigh impossible to read them without singing “Curare! Curare! / Curare!” or, “I’LL PUNCH / A DONKEY / IN THE / STREETS / OF GALWAY!”, or even the bleak opening of Jesse – “Nose holes / caked / in black cocaine” – without breathing out the half-audible “Pow! Pow!” by which Walker managed to yoke Elvis’s twin to the destruction of the Twin Towers. What would a reader who hadn’t heard a note of Walker’s music make of Sundog? She’d probably find mysterious beauty in See You Don’t Bump His Head (the title comes from a cut line in from Here to Eternity),

and in Clara. For the rest, I couldn’t say. There are limited and deluxe editions available, which may be a clue to what’s going on, which is at least one part charlatanry. McBride is at least honest when she concludes: “Read it, understand a little more and then go put the records on.”