was couldn’t possibly have been more out of step with the times when it was
released into the height of Britpop in mid-1995, Scott Walker’s
notoriously challenging comeback album Tilt has become one of the era’s
most enduring artistic achievements a quarter of a century later. In one regard,
the nature of Walker’s avant-garde reinvention made perfect sense given the
Nineties’ embrace of the past, a decade in which the ideologically-driven music
press’s purges of rock and pop’s old icons following punk was reversed.
wasn’t the one that anyone was expecting.
just a week or so after Oasis had topped the UK Singles Chart for the first
time, Tilt made little impression on a self-congratulatory media and a public
distracted by cultural triumphalism. With the majority of its tracks tipping
the six-minute mark, full of abstruse imagery delivered in melodic fragments
and sung entirely in a register significantly higher than Walker’s natural
vocal range, it was too difficult, offering the listener virtually nothing by
way of easy answers or ways in. But for those who were receptive, Tilt was
one of the most bold and striking albums of any era, let alone the Nineties.
An Introduction to Scott Walker
considering just how ex nihilo that Walker’s comeback was. When it
arrived, Tilt was Scott Walker’s first album for 11 years. His previous
release, 1984’s Climate Of
Hunter, had sold so few copies that it has long been rumoured to be
Virgin’s lowest-selling album of all time. Walker then retreated into a lengthy
exile from public life, his profile and mythology gradually growing in his
absence. Ageing pop stars and former teen idols making new records after
decades out of the game simply don’t sound like this. They usually make
forgettable records that cleave closely to the established formulas that earned
them their fanbase in the first place, not minimalistic, avant-garde song
cycles bearing impressionistic artwork that looks like a still from a
But as The
Quietus pointed out in last year’s obituary for Walker, you could more easily
understand Tilt as a different formulation – albeit a rather radical one
– on an artistic vision that Walker had been pursuing ever since he first quit
The Walker Brothers in the mid-Sixties. Right from the Brecht and
Weill-influenced chamber-pop balladry of his exceptional quartet of Scott albums
around the turn of the Seventies, he had always been influenced by European
art, film and literature, and let them inform his work to a greater or lesser
degree ever since. The most direct precedent for Tilt in Walker’s back
catalogue was the one-off Walker Brothers reunion, 1978’s Nite Flights. Listening
back to the harrowing ‘The
Electrician’, in particular, the more it seems like a precursor to the more
malevolent parts of this album.
is difficult to parse, as Walker sings in delicately pronounced fragments
and non-sequiturs whose violent content jars with the nature of the delivery.
In his deliberately strained baritone, his expression is animated yet terrified.
Take the BDSM imageries in the viscerally intense second track ‘The Cockfighter’, which seems
to describe power relations within sexual and personal relationships. Elsewhere
in Tilt, these same power dynamics are conflated with the exercising of
political power in songs like ‘Bolivia
‘95’, concerning South and Central American refugees and set to a
blood-chilling, dead-of-night ambience that later blooms into atonal violin
soundscapes reminiscent of Krystof Penderecki. Opening track ‘Farmer In The City’ comes on
like some weird modernist death march, with Walker making allusions to the
murder of controversial Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, crying “Do
I hear 21? 21? 21?” like some undead auctioneer of people’s souls. Walker’s
words are like a spectre hanging over proceedings, haunting them.
It seems to
be an abstract commentary on human nature, of mankind’s propensity towards brutality,
authoritarianism and evil when left unchecked. These lyrical motifs are often
given more direct expression by the music itself, which consists of elongated
periods of sparse, cold ambience punctuated by inhuman drones, industrial
death-march percussion and atonal eruptions of mechanical noise. The insistent
pulse underpinning ‘Bouncer See
Bouncer’, the sinister drumbeat of ‘Manhattan’ and the deeply
atmospheric ‘Patriot (A Single)’
where the lone chirrup of a piccolo stands in stark contrast to the slate-grey musical
is the most conventional piece on the record, but even this has only faintest
of rock drumbeats underneath the electric, atonal peaks.
It all adds
up to one of the most impenetrable and cryptic works of Walker’s career, but,
oddly, probably the album of his that you most want to press play and listen to
again immediately – even if just to check if you heard all of that correctly.
Even for his staunchest supporters, it must have come as a serious surprise. Operating
at a similarly sparse level of output, Walker put out two similarly
breathtaking successors to Tilt that formed a loose trilogy – The Drift in 2006, and Bish Bosch in 2012. A
collaboration with doom-metal outfit Sunn O))) titled Soused followed in 2014, then
two soundtracks for 2016’s The
Childhood Of A Leader and 2018’s Vox Lux respectively before
Walker’s death in early 2019. While the balladry of his early career was
focussed upon by the mainstream press, many fellow artists praised Walker’s avant-garde
late career. Tilt was the beginning of that majestic era.
Listen to Tilt by Scott Walker here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
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Influenced by: Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Nico, David Bowie, Brian Eno
Tags: 25 years old, 25th anniversary, cult '90s, Ed Biggs, Scott Walker, Tilt
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