An In-depth Look at the Legacy of the Walker Brothers' 'Portrait'
It goes: misery, misery, misery, misery, misery, then finally a bit of hopefulness.
It goes: misery, misery, misery, misery, misery, then finally a bit of hopefulness with an undertow of deep melancholy. And that's just side one of Portrait, the Walker Brothers' second album and the one where the dark majesty of Scott Walker really became apparent.
It's an absolutely amazing piece of wallowing, made all the better by the fact that it sits like a dark, gaping chasm, right in the middle of the whizz-bang-gosh all new Technicolour swinging sixties. Imagine if Austin Powers was suddenly possessed by Nick Cave, and you're part way there: this wasn't some boho invasion by outsiders like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, it was the super-mainstream itself turning dark, chilly and peculiar, like a haunting at a pyjama party.
The Walker Brothers were essentially pure showbiz, a crooner boyband—not so far from a grown up version of The Monkees, really—and had very little truck with rock'n'roll. In fact musically their lavish arrangements and sense of melodrama put them closer to Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, and even Las Vegas Elvis than to the Beatles, Stones, and the Kinks. The American trio bucked the trend of the British Invasion by scoring big in the UK while remaining curiosities at home, and really everything about them was out of place, out of time: though luxurious in sound and elegantly crooned, they made music of alienation, with the slightly mental baritone warble and desolate persona of Scott Walker (nee Engel) at its heart.
That Nick Cave comparison is not an idle one—from the very beginning of this album on “In My Room” Scott pre-empts Cave's vocal delivery and sombre authority. But he's not the only modern one-off who owes Scott a big debt. This is the first album that featured a song entirely written by Scott: track two, the utterly stunning “Saturday's Child” and in that song you can hear the seeds of practically the whole of Jarvis Cocker's career. In fact, its tales of the emptiness of the social whirl and parties turned sour make it “Sorted for Es & Whizz” 30 years early.
Even without Scott's gloomy poetics though, the mood is unrelentingly dark, full of universal themes of loss. So in that ride through side one you get obsession (“In my Room”), disillusionment (“Saturday's Child”), embitterment (“Just for a Thrill”), dysfunction (“Hurting Each Other”), and the terror of ageing and failure (“Old Folks”). But then comes the weird, free-floating heart of the album: at the end of side one is “Summertime”, the Gershwin standard, all its hope and fear rolled together in a protective cocoon of luxury.
It’s then followed on the flip by an intensely weird take on Curtis Mayfield's “People Get Ready.” It's an endlessly baffling recording: slow and stately gospel seemingly bereft of belief but delivered with passion nonetheless; a sense of forlorn hope honestly expressed. With its chimes, brass, and opiated pace, it's basically Spiritualized with even more grandiosity. It is constantly amazing, a dark mirror of a song that never quite gives you the same thing twice.
Then it's back to a descent through loss and voyeurism (“I Can See it Now,” a Scott co-write), loss and fetishism (“Where is the Girl?”), loss and mistrust (“Living Above your Head”), loss and the failure of stoicism (“Take it Like a Man”) and loss, loss, and more loss (“No Sad Songs for Me,” ending with a painfully slow refrain “It's over... it's all over...”).
And there it is, done. No redemption, no twist in the tale, just misery, misery and misery with that strange dream of something other floating in the middle of it. There was nothing quite like it at the time, but it clearly struck a chord as it was the Walker Brothers' biggest selling record—and it has continued to strike a chord, resonating through not just Cave, Cocker and Pierce, but Cohen, Bowie, Marc Almond, Siouxie Sioux, Damon Albarn, Róisín Murphy, Thom Yorke, Portishead, and on. Scott himself would of course go on to even more out-there poetics over the years, but there's something about this record, with his unique vision emerging from, but still fused with, the hyper mainstream that speaks of the darkness behind the glitz that we all instinctively know is there. And in that showbiz grandiosity lurks beauty. Miserable beauty, but beauty nonetheless.
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