The Globe And Mail JUNE 3, 2006 - by Robert Everett-Green


You climb up the beanstalk, and have no trouble finding the treasure. Then the giant comes after you, and you race back down, and it's all going to end badly unless you find the axe - where is that axe, anyway?

The story is a familiar one, but few live it as fully as Scott Walker, the former heartthrob crooner whose group The Walker Brothers once challenged The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the British pop charts. For a short time in the mid-'60s, Walker gathered gold in a cloud castle, and then the giant caught up with him.

After my fourth record, because it didn't sell that well, I was told I should do something more commercial, he said, recalling an unpleasant meeting with his record label round about 1970. And I went along. That's my great sin in life. It was a tremendous act of bad faith, for about a decade.

For a decade, he toiled for the giant, putting out records he didn't really believe in, participating in half-hearted reunions of The Walker Brothers, the trio that had stormed the British charts with tunes like The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore - surprisingly dark songs, given their lush, MOR sound.

The dark side of Scott Walker was something the giant never understood, which may explain the bi-polar nature of Walker's early career. He was a good-looking, big-voiced pop crooner, and a real teen-mag star. He had the screaming fans, the TV variety show. He could write and sing songs that zipped up the charts and stayed there.

But he was also drawn to subject matter that didn't sit easily on pop radio. He loved the wet-streets, empty-arms despair of Jacques Brel, the French cabaret star. Walker's solo albums, after The Walker Brothers split in 1967, matched spooky hermetic lyrics with meticulous wide-screen arrangements. They sold for a while, and then they didn't, and then he gave in.

That might have been the end of the story, had those solo albums not caught on with a more underground stream of listeners. Walker found a second public that was less fickle than the first, and it included other musicians: David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and Nick Cave have all called themselves fans - the least they could do, since all show his influence quite openly.

By the time he came out with Tilt in 1995, Walker had outrun the giant forever. The disc was a huge bleak monument to the darkness beneath the stairs in everyone's psychological basement. It made use of many of the same ingredients as Walker's previous work, but it lay well outside most people's notion of what pop is or could be.

Ditto his latest album, The Drift, which infiltrated Canadian record stores this week (on 4AD Records). The record's ten linked compositions (songs seems too confining a word) pass like a grand and ominous description in music of a film that can never be seen. Its many characters (including Elvis Presley, Al Jolson and Mussolini's mistress Clara Petacci) are dream-like figures in a narrative defined not by so much by events, as by the currents of emotion buffeting against Walker's tremulous tenor.

In my life, I've had a lot of nightmares, said Walker, in a rare interview from his London studio. I still have them. I think that informs the way I might make a noise. It affects the scale of things in my music. Everything is quite out-scaled.

Clara, his evocation of Petacci, stems from a series of nightmares Walker had while growing up (as Scott Engel) in Hamilton, Ohio, in the late '40s. He remembers seeing a newsreel showing the bullet-ridden bodies of Mussolini and Petacci hung up in a square in Milan. The image haunted him, and came back into his thoughts when he became aware of a rise in neo-fascist sentiment in Europe.

I didn't want to write a protest song. I don't like to be preached at, he said, his Midwestern accent untouched by four decades in Britain. So he began to learn about Petacci, a young upper-class Roman who is regarded sympathetically in Italy because of her refusal to abandon Il Duce in his last hour. Walker discovered that she was obsessed with celebrity and was a fan of Mussolini's before she ever met him. That datum seems to have resonated with Walker's own deep ambivalence about fame. Far from being a protest song, Clara feels like a painfully intimate recreation of the last phase of a fatal relationship - a fascist love song, he calls it.

Jesse takes off from Elvis's documented habit of speaking aloud to his stillborn twin during times of turmoil, and from the destruction of the World Trade Centre. Most of the time, Walker begins with words, grooming his cryptic texts over months or years before searching for suitable music. In this case, his subject matter led him to Jailhouse Rock, which he pulled apart and reconfigured into a violent, wistful threnody for two sets of doomed twins.

For the most part, Walker seems a bit stumped by questions about his latest work. He's quite happy to reveal the sources of some of his more unusual sounds, including the side of pork he slaps in Clara, and the huge wooden box he had built in his studio as a drum and resonating chamber. But as he sees it, he's making music the only way he can, in an imaginative space that's too mysterious for him to describe fully. It's a very strange process, he said, and it involves a lot of waiting for sounds to appear.

I don't like to deconstruct something I took so much trouble to construct, he said. What I do isn't about taking up a position on any particular kind of music. It isn't about being experimental or avant-garde. It's about finding the right sound and the right music for the words. It's about using everything I've piled up inside myself.

Walker seems to have piled up a lot of ambivalence about anyone's ability to find the right words for music. In Cossacks Are, the opening track on The Drift, he sings lyrics patched together from high-flown critical commentaries (according to one on-line discussion site, the object of the comments was Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, a Walker favourite and the probable godfather of his tone-clustered string arrangements). The anguished tone of his incantations, the sinister accompaniment and the central image (a Cossack charge) convey a deep sense of menace, though given the subject (critics), this may also be a demonstration of Walker's much-overlooked sense of humour.

Critics in the U.K., where the BBC recently ran a documentary about Walker (with testimonials from Eno, Jarvis Cocker and Alison Goldfrapp), have mostly praised The Drift, sometimes overestimating its reliance on contemporary classical models. For all his deviation from pop norms, Walker remains firmly attached to the sequential, track-building methods of most popular music. What separates him from the crowd is his disregard for limits. He goes where the music leads him, however inconvenient the results may be.

I'm always initially hopeful that I can make an album I can do a bit of touring with, but then my imagination takes over, and I end up with a studio full of people, he said ruefully. The Drift is too big to recreate on stage, and it took eleven years to come to fruition, but he's hoping to do a smaller, more roadworthy album within the year. At sixty-three, he's aware of the preciousness of time. We'll see whether this next dream will obey his wishes, or whether his imagination will, once again, lead him down a long path that allows for no detours.