Scott Walker doesn't make conventional music. During the recording of his latest album, 2006's The Drift, he asked his co-producer to include a braying donkey on a song. With his deep, operatic baritone and bizarre song structures, Walker has always been a challenging listen. He hasn't played in front of a live audience for more than 30 years and is basically a recluse. And as one interview subject in the exceptional documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man says, "Walker's music is just as mysterious as he was."
Walker was born Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1943. He began his career as a teenager in the Walker Brothers, three guys who weren't related or named Walker. They made huge, melodramatic songs with swirling strings that sounded a lot like Phil Spector's Wall of Sound productions, with tons of atmosphere and instruments vying for space with the voices. They were huge in England but barely dented the U.S. charts — their biggest hit, "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)," reached No. 13 in 1966.
But Walker was a beat-poetry-reading, progressive-jazz-loving guy. And when the Walker Brothers broke up in the late '60s, he began a solo career. His material took a dark and morose turn on songs about S&M, cuts like "It's Raining Today" and tracks that boasted subtitles like "Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime." Then he got weird.
In the mid-'70s, the Walker Brothers reunited and released their final album in 1978, just as punk was taking over the U.K. That record, which sounded a lot like Brian Eno's great work of the era, found a new and adoring audience with the post-punks. Walker recorded a follow-up in 1984, then took 11 years to make another album. It was another 11 years before he got around to completing The Drift.
30 Century Man features scenes from that album's sessions, including an amusing bit where a percussionist pounds away on a slab of raw meat to get a particular sound Walker is looking for. Walker describes the music on The Drift as "big blocks of sounds," and that's pretty accurate. The surreal tracks have no melodies; strings hold a single note for bars at a time. Even Walker can't explain why his songs sound the way they do.
His fans have a hard time too. As one notes, it's not exactly abstract music, but it's still confusing. Interview subjects (including David Bowie, Sting and Radiohead) are shown sitting in silence, listening to Walker's music with a look on their faces that's as intense as the music.
Loaded with archival footage and plenty of folks trying to get a grasp on Walker and his music (one admirer calls him "a poet and composer of the unconscious"), 30 Century Man's best scenes are recent interviews with Walker. And contrary to his reputation, he's personable, self-critical and insightful. It's a fascinating character study, as well as a dense chronological history, of a cult figure whose stature continues to grow.