New Box Sets: Scott Walker

In 5 Easy Pieces, Mercury
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The Independent Culture

The most intriguing of this season's box sets is this five-CD offering from Scott Walker, as different from the usual run of artist compilations as Walker's music is from his contemporaries' at any given time. Where most single-artist box sets opt for either simple chronological presentation of the back-catalogue or complementary accumulations of B-sides, outtakes, remixes and other rarities, 5 Easy Pieces presents Walker's work through five individual anthologies, each collated thematically. It's an approach that seeks to establish a continuity of ambition linking the disparate eras of Walker's career, and a measure of its success is that it has persuaded even a grudging sceptic such as myself of his stature.

In My Room is the first CD, a collection of Walker's Sixties songs for existential loners, peopled by characters such as the antihero of "Archangel", sourly observing lovers as he returns, tout seul, to his bedsit, or glumly listening to the carnal thrashings of the couple next door. It's the classic Walker style beloved of indie outsiders, the emotions painted in broad strokes, with melodramatic orchestral arrangements to match and, on "Archangel", a sepulchral organ reminding us how close to suicide such self-absorption can come.

Where's the Girl? is similarly self-explanatory, a collection of songs about unreachable girls with names such as Genevieve, Joanna and Angelica, and the tortuous entanglements of the heart they entail. It's drenched with the heady aroma of Sixties metropolitan glamour turned overripe with melancholy, offering a more mature take on the clichés about "swinging London". Even so, it's a bit of a stretch from the 16 older songs to the two longer, more exploratory tracks tacked on at the end of the disc, which were produced by Walker almost three decades later for Ute Lemper. They provide a bridge of sorts to Walker's later work, but before that Rubicon is crossed, there's An American in Europe to be traversed, an unsatisfactory CD split between Europe - more songs about girls called "Jackie" and "Mathilde" and towns such as "Copenhagen" and "Amsterdam", and a further tranche of Jacques Brel material - and the less well-defined America, which yokes together a bunch of Walker's borderline show-tunes with tentative tasters from Climate of Hunter and Tilt.

The most successful of the compilations in demonstrating Walker's aesthetic continuity is undoubtedly This is How You Disappear, where "Plastic Palace People", from Scott 2, rubs shoulders with "The Electrician", from Nite Flights (the stubbornly uncommercial late-Seventies album that finally killed off The Walker Brothers' career), and the more challenging parts of Climate of Hunter and Tilt (which did the same for Walker's solo career). It's the CD that is most illustrative, one imagines, of his character, eschewing industry-approved cabaret kitsch and suburban normality for explorations of an interior world suffused with melancholy and existential dread.

The final compilation, of film music, Scott on Screen, is a letdown by comparison, with the most noticeable disjunction between his Sixties work - theme songs for westerns and comedies - and the later, more considered orchestral vignettes and sound-collages recorded for Leos Carax's 1999 film Pola X. Taken as a whole, however, the five compilations provide as insightful a guide as could be hoped for to this most obstinately individual of artists.