New York Times DECEMBER 16, 2008 - by Stephen Holden


The story of Scott Walker, the oracular singer, experimental composer, British-based American expatriate and reclusive cult figure whose career is profiled in Stephen Kijak's worshipful documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, adheres to a familiar rock 'n' roll template. As a pop group matures, its members' needs for self-expression drive them to strike out on their own as soloists. John Lennon, the prototypical rebel, recorded his "primal scream" albums immediately after the breakup of the Beatles.

Mr. Walker is also a pop-group alumnus in pursuit of the primal. Born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1943, he was the lead singer of the Walker Brothers, a pop trio whose members were neither brothers nor named Walker. Their mid-'60s signature hits, Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, which echoed the booming, blue-eyed soul of The Righteous Brothers, were far more popular in Britain than in the United States.

Because Scott Walker was extremely handsome, the trio's public appearances aroused frenzied female adulation. In the extended interview that forms the spine of 30 Century Man, he recalls the scary time he was trapped inside a car overturned by screaming fans.

Even then, Mr. Walker says, his interests extended well beyond pop to Beat literature and European films, especially those of Ingmar Bergman; musically he was drawn to darker, moodier sounds than mainstream pop permitted. The solo albums he recorded after he left the group featured songs by Jacques Brel, the impassioned Flemish singer-songwriter who was as catalytic an influence on Mr. Walker as Bob Dylan was on many of his peers.

Although 30 Century Man covers Mr. Walker's teen-idol years, it is far more interested in his later evolution into a guru of experimental pop, admired by the likes of David Bowie (the movie's executive producer), Brian Eno, Radiohead, Sting and Jarvis Cocker of the British band Pulp. Mr. Kijak harbours special affection for Mr. Walker's 1969 solo album, Scott 4. His first collection of all-original songs, this alleged masterpiece was also his first commercial failure. At that time Mr. Walker's voice, a beautifully polished pop baritone, suggested a hybrid of Tom Jones and Jim Morrison but with a spooky, quivering vibrato.

Once Mr. Walker shucked off conventional pop forms to write increasingly compressed poetic lyrics and to invent sounds that, in the words of one talking head, deliberately blurred "the boundary between chords and discords," the mood of cosmic desolation that had always lurked in his singing came to the fore. Today he sounds a little like Bryan Ferry or Mr. Bowie (in his ghoulish mode) as the singing narrator of a psychological horror film.

"I have a nightmarish imagination," admits Mr. Walker, who comes across as extremely shy, soft-spoken and articulate. He speaks of "words coming out of silence," as in Samuel Beckett. One commentator calls him "a poet and composer of the unconscious" whose songs follow "the logic of a dream world."

In a movie that avoids examining Mr. Walker's personal history, there are hints of a man struggling with chronic depression and problems with alcohol, but they are only hints. No major personal relationships are mentioned or even alluded to. The music speaks for itself. And the fragments offered from Mr. Walker's albums Tilt, from 1995, and The Drift, from 2007, accompanied by abstract visual designs, are, in a word, haunting.