There exists a trope in which a fictional character is split in two, resulting in two discrete personalities, usually one good and one evil. This storyline has existed in literature at least as long as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it was popular in the earlier days of television as well, notably in the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” which first aired in October 1966. Of course, while the concept is metaphorical, the human struggle between conflicting sides of the same identity is very real.
Scott Walker’s first three LPs were mixes of interpretive covers—generally American songwriters and Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel—and his own originals, which had slowly become the bulk of his material. Scott was one-quarter original and Scott 2 a third, which were both huge hits in the United Kingdom (Walker’s effective homeland, though he was, in fact, born and raised in the United States). Scott 3, though it hit the third slot on the UK charts, was received with more skepticism, in part due to its lack of recognizable tunes. Walker penned ten of its thirteen songs and pushed the three Brel covers to the end of side two; the originals were dissonant, murky, and arcane—nothing disagreeable, to be sure, but also not an ideal pop formula for 1969.
Instead of continuing the formula, Walker released two successive albums in the second half of the year. First came Scott Walker Sings Songs from His T.V. Series (that series being the BBC’s Scott, the footage of which has been lost), which was reminiscent of the early part of his career with the Walker Brothers, featuring standards and songs written by other popular artists. Four months later came Scott 4, which was entirely the opposite, with Walker reaching the culmination of his study of chant and classical music, composing all songs included on the album. The striking “The Seventh Seal” is typified by this. Its lyrics outline the plot of the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film Det sjunde inseglet, foreign films being a passion of Walker’s. “On Your Own Again” (arranged by the former Wally Stott, who handled most of Scott 3) is a pleasant ode to an ended relationship with the peculiar line, “I was so happy, I didn’t feel like me.” The sparkling poem “The World’s Strongest Man” is the other side of that sentiment: “Take me back again to your warm design.”
The orphic “Angels of Ashes” evokes Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. The seemingly self-referential vision “Boy Child” is an affecting trip through spacetime, while the expat folk farewell “Hero of the War” criticizes not only war but, surprisingly, the soldiers themselves. “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” is a haunting response to the Prague Spring of 1968 and the reforms of Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubček, perfectly accented during its chorus by the choral ensemble. The beautiful “Duchess” is a fairly straightforward love song that illustrates how important the arrangements (by the usuals Stott and Peter Knight, and on this song Keith Roberts) were to the record as a whole; the same can be said of “Get Behind Me,” which is otherwise somewhat forgettable musically. However, Walker’s skills as a wordsmith generally make each song worthwhile, the fitting closer “Rhymes of Goodbye” no exception.
Scott Walker showed a keen ability for performing stylized covers of popular music, but Scott 4 was the record where he proved he could do it all by himself. Unfortunately, it would mark the last time he’d produce a complete album of original material for fifteen years. It’s tragic that so much potential music was lost during that period, especially considering the weight of music like “The Seventh Seal,” “Boy Child,” and the stunning “The Old Man’s Back Again.” That is neither here nor there, however, and Scott 4 remains a shining testament to Walker’s talent, and a timeless, inexhaustible listen.