Fired up by Noam Chomsky in the late 1970s, the musician’s ‘late style’ became a forbidding avant-garde zone that fearlessly engaged the modern world

When journalist Keith Altham visited the Walker Brothers’ London apartment in late 1965, he noticed a Victorian front door stashed under one of the beds. It came, he was told, from a house where Jack the Ripper had committed one of his murders. The moptopped heartthrobs had purchased it at an auction. Genuine or not, such a door was a portal to a plethora of horrific memories, inspired by a pileup of fictions, heinous acts of barbarity and unsolvable mysteries. Here, possibly, are the seeds of Scott Walker’s extraordinary, contrarian late style.

His career set sail on a sunlit schooner of orchestral balladry and closed with a twilight voyage to the heart of darkness. As Walker declined during the mid-70s, his work became an alcoholic blur of faux country and western, sleazy funk and lightweight movie themes. But in the two years between Stretch and Nite Flights, released in 1978, Walker read Chomsky’s writings on US foreign policy and human-rights abuses and stepped out of the cabaret into the killing fields. In The Electrician, from Nite Flights, a torturer’s nightmare is temporarily transported to a soaring orchestral rhapsody with Latin overtones, before returning inexorably to the horror of the penal chamber.

Edward Said characterised “late style” as a form of fragments, expressing the idea of a civilisation in ruins. Ornament and harmony are rejected favour of dissonance and silence. Artists with a late style transcend the conventionally acceptable, while stubbornly refusing to satisfy popular demand. Said cited Adorno’s vision of the disillusioned romantic “who exists almost ecstatically detached from, yet in a kind of complicity with, new and monstrous modern forms – fascism, antisemitism, totalitarianism and bureaucracy”. For me this perfectly sums up Walker’s position from Tilt onwards. Like a kidnapper bundling you into a car, he forced you into a scene of disorientation, trauma and violence. From the sun lounger to the electric chair.

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