The Songs of Scott Walker review – Jarvis Cocker and friends untwist easy listening's dark master

Royal Albert Hall, London
The Proms were treated to starry covers of Scott Walker’s 1960s classics, but they didn’t always invoke the songwriter’s own spirit of invention

In an interview broadcast a few days before this concert of reinterpretations of Scott Walker’s late 1960s albums, Walker gave Jarvis Cocker, one of the participants, some sage advice: “Make it as new as you can.” Yet the lineup for Prom 15 – Cocker, John Grant, Susanne Sundfør and Richard Hawley – is one that feels tilted to appeal to the MOR indie direction of BBC 6 Music, rather than a musical pioneer hoping that a new generation might pick up his mercurial baton. The accompanying arrangements are played, after all, by an ensemble called the Heritage Orchestra.

Scott Walker’s recent output has included a collaboration with avant-doom metal group Sunn O))) and records made with arrangements of sound sources including breezeblocks and cracked whips. His bizarre, haunting albums Bish Bosch, The Drift and Tilt take modern composition in far bolder directions than most artists in the oft-tame “contemporary classical” genre. Those albums, then, might be more fitting for an outing at the Proms than a quartet of indie singers revisiting his past.

The five albums recorded after Scott left the Walker Brothers to go solo, released between 1967 and 1970 married a twisted take on easy listening with strikingly inventive arrangements by orchestrators including Angela Morley and Peter Knight, redone here by Jules Buckley. It was an awkward fit with the music of the time: too weird for the Walker Brothers’ teenage fans who chased him around his adopted British home, too straight for the emerging counterculture. The albums struggled commercially and Walker’s name faded, only kept alive in the 1980s by psychedelic explorer Julian Cope and Marc Almond of Soft Cell, and left to be discovered by this new generation of artists on the Albert Hall stage.

Cabaret and gothic... Susanne Sundfør.
Cabaret and gothic... Susanne Sundfør. Photograph: Mark Allan

Jarvis Cocker is up first, wandering on stage in a brown corduroy suit and nervously fiddling with his microphone. His voice might be the weakest here technically, but it’s he who most deeply inhabits the music, sharing as he does with Walker a fascination with writing songs where ordinary lives are made beautiful. Plastic Palace People, sung by Cocker with wonderful fragility that ends up submerged by orchestration, might well describe the characters of a peak-period Pulp song.

Like Walker, John Grant is an American who seems to have found his spiritual home in Europe and sounds at his best when pushing his voice with inventive electronics. Tonight, his versions of Rosemary and The World’s Strongest Man sail the closest to the Walker originals, but suffer from being more replication than reinterpretation.

It’s not just the gender twist that makes Susanne Sundfør the standout performer, yet it’s a shame that her On Your Own Again is overridden by orchestral bombast, compared to the astonishing performance she gave accompanied only by piano on Newsnight the evening before. On The Amorous Humphrey Plugg however, she waves her hands as if she’s taken over the conducting for an intense performance that’s at once cabaret and gothic, taking the arrangement further even than Walker and his 60s collaborators did. It’s the best performance of the night, and shows what might have been achieved had Walker’s advice been adhered to.

I’d rather have had Marc Almond or another female performer instead of Richard Hawley, for instance, who emerges strapped to an acoustic guitar to sing It’s Raining Today. It’s one of Walker’s most evocative songs, parlaying a sense of the mysterious from his love of European cinema into the pensiveness of waiting for the British public transport network to do something. The guitar is almost a trick – where Sundfør and Cocker push and pull with the orchestration, his strumming is a barrier, keeping them at bay. That he’s the only performer to engage in chitchat with the crowd, does, I think, say something about what’s missing and, conversely, what he’s brought in: the vocalist ego that Walker has often distanced himself from.

It all begs the question: are you a singer or an interpreter? Scott Walker was both, which is why it’s a shame that none of the Jacques Brel songs that he made his seedy own were included. It’d have been intriguing to see to what new places the performers might have taken them. Somewhat inevitably, all four singers come on stage for a finale medley of Get Behind Me, accompanied by a raucous guitar solo from Hawley. The inappropriate racket rather overwhelms the achievement of the musicians of the Heritage Orchestra in capturing the still-otherworldly arrangements of the originals.

It’s a graceless note on which to end a curiously mixed bag of an evening. Yet if Scott Walker never played these songs live because he felt that even he, their writer, could really have done them justice, it’s perhaps not really a failing – more a testament to the enduring legacy of an artist who, in a studio somewhere, is probably getting on with music that sounds unlike anything you’ve ever heard.


Luke Turner

The GuardianTramp

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