Right Engel, string theory

Pulp, at their apotheosis, tangled small-town social commentary with cheap-sounding keyboards, to capture the state of a nation. But six years on from Different Class, Jarvis Cocker wanted to tell stories more epic in scope, and the music behind his words expanded to match the widescreen imagery—thanks in part to another auteur who has recently come back into the limelight.

We Love Life, released in 2001 and since ignored by too many, was produced by a certain Scott Walker—the songwriter who pretty much invented the language of lovestruck pop music—and features some of Pulp’s most genuinely lush compositions. I qualify “lush” with “genuinely” because the album’s predecessor, This Is Hardcore, also featured extravagant orchestration, but only for sardonic and discomforting ends. On We Love Life highlights like “The Wickerman” and “Sunrise“, the cinematic strings and thundery, portentous sonics are more complementary to Cocker’s heart-wrenching tales, brought to life with childhood anecdotes and rich emotional detail. The jarring, greedy hedonism of something like “Seductive Barry“, this is not.

Walker, who now constructs avant-garde albums combining fringe genres of music with deranged narratives several steps more troubling than the already-dark “abstractions and absurdisms” he used to secrete into his ‘pop’ songs, reached his own creative zenith in 1969, having earlier wooed the masses as part of The Walker Brothers. The final two solo albums to bear his first name in their titles, Scott 3 and Scott 4 are rightly revered. And, unlike Walker’s late-period works (Tilt, The Drift, and this year’s Bish Bosch), which remind reviewers of artists like Burial, Ligeti, and Genocide Organ, it is this pair of albums we are reminded of when we hear much ‘modern’ music.

In the first of two excellent articles about Walker on The Quietus (one is a review of Bish Bosch, one is an interview with its creator), Joe Kennedy makes the case for Walker qua originator, writing, “Where now […] swelling strings and mournful horns are rather a clichéd or kitsch way of expressing romantic angst, the mid-1960s saw pop’s relationship with emotion as something yet to be rigidly defined.” Into this vacuum stepped Walker, circa Scott 3 and Scott 4, backing up his lovesick and inimitable baritone with wintry orchestral flourishes and gently-plucked acoustic guitars.

For the most part, the arrangements on these albums contain a great deal of space—a feature consistent with his more crazed later works. This emptiness serves to emphasise the emotional heft that Waker believes only real strings can bring. In the second of the aforementioned articles, Walker sets out his argument as follows: “People always ask about big string sections versus big synthesisers. There is nothing… There is nothing… nothing that gives you the power or the resonance of strings. A machine cannot do it. It can be loud and everything but it lacks that human touch.”

Of course there have been modern pastiches of Walker’s œuvre, the most touching of which was The Last Shadow Puppets’ The Age Of The Understatement. But listening to Scott 3, for me, I think of two less obvious touchstones, the first of which is We Love Life. Here, you can see Walker’s obsessions as a clear antecedent. That “power” that strings bring is most keenly felt on the quasi-title track (see above), which is arranged for ten(!) double basses, and is consequently more massive than a black hole. The second is Radiohead’s “How To Disappear Completely“, which begins with virtually the same smudge, or smear, of dissonant strings, as Walker’s “It’s Raining Today“. It’s not power Radiohead are aiming for, but complexity and puzzlement—and the same goes for its forebear.

At the emotional climax of “The Wickerman”, Cocker recalls finding first love amidst the “scuffed formica-top tables” of a café, with a course of events that readers of Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass will surely recognise.

“And then, after what seemed like hours of thinking about it,
I finally took your face in my hands and I kissed you for the first time.
And a feeling like electricity flowed through my whole body,
And I immediately knew that I’d entered a completely different world.”

It’s a less guarded approach to romance than the allusions Walker used to use, but it’s pretty much exactly what I felt when I first heard Scott 3. Walker’s recent trilogy is undoubtedly praiseworthy, but that earlier album was a paradigm shift, the work of a revolutionary, not a reactionary.

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