Back at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Russian composer Scriabin decided that musical keys had colours. He wasn’t the first to do this (though he was certainly the first to assign F major a fruity palette of fuchsia pink); but his is perhaps the most (in)famous attempt to codify music’s potentially synaesthetic properties. Just reading about it on Wikipedia makes my eyes water a little: his never-completed magnum opus, Mysterium, was to have been ‘a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas Mountains that was somehow to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.’ Eat that, Maharishi.
True synaesthesia is, of course, pretty rare, but I’ve had a fair few bizarre epiphanies when music seems to leap beyond its limits and induce sensory overload. This overstimulation happens at live concerts especially. Two semi-staged operas at the Royal Festival Hall over the last couple of years gave my nerve endings such a workout that I was reduced to scratching my legs obsessively in the interval. The so-called tingle factor is a precious, precious thing, but it also seems to send histamine production into overdrive. Whoever thought Duke Bluebeard’s Castle could actually make you itch? Bloody Bartok and his genius! Tristan und Isolde was just as devastating. Never mind Scriabin’s plans for the dissolution of the world in bliss. Wagner got there before him: the gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art) really could bring about world peace, though in the wrong hands it could just as easily be an apocalypse.
You’ll notice that my examples here are classical. It’s not that pop music doesn’t provide this kind of hit, but even the best rock gigs don’t quite attain that level of multidimensionality. A crucial component of musical synaesthesia for me is the illusion that several plains are converging at once. It’s music a draughtsman might plot in a series of numbered figures: it has its own architectonics. It’s hard to achieve this with the usual pop/rock setup. Not impossible, but difficult. And the trouble is it often requires overblown visuals and overwrought production in order to realise itself. How on earth, then, does the music of Scott Walker manage to hit those buttons? That strange, unworldly, rich noise that isn’t classical, isn’t jazz, isn’t rock or pop, but remains sui generis to the many ears that have loved it?
Walker is a Scriabin for our times. On the release of Tilt in 1995, he urged listeners to imagine they were suffering from a heavy dose of flu as they worked their way through its opaque, elusive music. It sounds like one of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies cards, deployed for surreal inspiration in the studio: “play your guitar as though you were ironing a shirt!”, “sing your way through an electric fence”, that kind of thing. But it also showcases an artist committed to music’s fourth dimension. Tilt isn’t really an album at all; it’s a sort of bodily experience, lurching from ache to anaesthesia and back into bloodrush. String arrangements screech like dying flies, buzz into the cochlea (‘Patriot’); church organs announce the ‘scalper in the lampglow’ (‘Manhattan’); and all the while, that purple velvet voice ripples in and out of echo, spitting plosives, flinging fricatives, trying out words on the tongue for their mouth-feel. 2006’s The Drift takes it to a nightmarishly pathological level; forget the flu, it’s full-on psychosis. ‘Cue’ comes across like William Burroughs on a binge: deathly glissandos strangle the arcane imagery, the ‘stamps tongue-swabbed’ and the ‘semen clotting to paste’. It’s what the glare of hospital ward striplights sounds like, after the morphine’s worn off. Bloody terrifying.
Walker’s as infamous now for this dark avant-music as he was once famous for melting teens’ hearts. As rock transformations go, it’s pretty unique (I doubt Gary Barlow will ever loop the sound of meat being slapped into his power ballads). The long gaps between albums, the reclusive reputation, the months in a monastery spent studying Gregorian chant and infrequent sightings atop a bike around the streets of West London have all contributed to an archetypal myth of bonkers genius. Perhaps his closest parallel is Kate Bush, but at least you can imagine meeting her in a health-food shop by the kelp tablets. Walker, on the other hand, seems all the scarier for slipping amongst us unnoticed. Asked in 1984 what he’d been doing for six years (a relatively short period of inactivity judging by recent form), he gave a typically cryptic answer: sitting in the pub watching the men play darts. Next time you’re aiming for 180, just check there isn’t an intense, monkish man on the edge of your peripheral vision. It may just jinx your aim.
Still, more often than not, it’s the indescribable beauty of Scott’s music that catches you off-guard. Even in the early days of the Walker Brothers, no man had ever sung with such richness and depth. The first song I probably ever heard was ‘The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore’, that Spectorish wodge of wonder, so magnificently lonesome, so happy in its misery. It was years and years (a decade or more) before I encountered the early solo albums, with their forays into wet-boulevard Gauloiserie and strange tributes to Bergman films. You don’t need me to tell you that Scott 3 and Scott 4 are as essential as any Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited. ‘Rosemary’ and ‘On your own again’ practically define the term vignette. You open them up like little perfume bottles and get a whiff of concentrated ambience: cool attar of sixties rose. See – synaesthesia. Proust’s madeleines have nothing on those halting violas. From this period, ‘It’s raining today’ is the one that gives me that Bartok effect (you know, the itchy arms and legs). Listen to the strings – a gauze of sleet – and you hear Walker’s unique muse gradually unfurling, off and away far from the cabaret circuit and the TV special. Soon he’ll follow her out of the window, but for now he’ll watch from the inside, tracing the trails of damp down the glass with his fingers.
The seventies weren’t so kind. He’d attempted too much and his label got cold feet. Nite Flights, the Walker Brothers’ 1978 offering, was the next advance, and completely unexpected. Both influenced by and influential on Berlin-period Bowie, the title track (later covered by the Thin White Duke himself) can only be described as Scott-does-art-rock-disco-with-synths, and it’s a triumph. To this day, when I feel the pinch of winter approaching, I always let out an ‘it’s so COLD’ in tribute to Walker’s dramatic octave leap. It gets the blood flowing. But what really warms me up is ‘Sleepwalkers’ Woman’. It’s the fourth track on Scott’s sole 1980s offering, Climate of Hunter, an album of dizzy mystery and unclassifiable meditations on who knows what, where only the sinuous wobble of fretless bass and the occasional wash of synth betray the time of writing. ‘Sleepwalkers’ Woman’ doesn’t really exist in time. It’s a space; a vista. Beatless, bassless, (baseless), it floats through the speakers into the room: a ghost, a visitation.
When I first heard the song, I wondered who on earth this somnambulist could be. Is the song recounting her unconscious tread, or is she emerging from her stupor? ‘For the first time unwoken, I am returned’, sings Scott, like a melancholy widow in a folksong; it seems we’re on the brink of a reveille, as she’s called back to reality. While the music around the voice is still and slow, it courses with potential energy. The orchestra holds its breath, pushing air round the sorts of tone clusters you’re more likely to find in Penderecki or Ligeti; augmented intervals stretch the chords, reveal overtones usually hidden. There is tension everywhere, as if in readiness for what lies over on the other side of consciousness; perhaps waking is glorious, but it could equally be no match for this state, poised on the threshold between oblivion and knowledge. If I’m in the right mood, and I listen to it on headphones, I find myself un-bodied, weightless, space-walking. This music sucks you through the wires. You’re a snaggletooth, a saw, a sine-wave.
It would all be highly unsettling, were it not for Walker’s heartstopping vocal. At times he’s almost like a priest enraptured by his own sermon (hear how he relishes the sound of the word ‘confessions’), at others an oracle giving sage advice from some glimmering rock in the desert. He plots a strange course between the plush and the ascetic, bathed in siesta heat only to cool into a dusky coo. But all the while, that voice wraps its tendrils around you, keeping you safe. It has many wonders to show you, some awe-inspiring, some petrifying, but one thing is certain: it will never leave your side. Even as the chords refuse to settle, gliding through enharmonics, false relations and near-dissonances, the command of Walker’s baritone, which could so easily be intimidating, just about keeps this otherworldly lament in the realm of the human.
‘Sleepwalkers’ Woman’ is a splinter of sunshine on the wing mirror; a break in the cloud on a desolate moor; a hunch, an inkling, a déjà vu. The first time I heard it somehow didn’t seem so; I felt as if I knew it, and it knew me. Instant shivers. Like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Scott Walker sees past, present and future all together in the one moment: he’s already been here, and he always will be. As the lyrics stress, it’s not that he will return, or that he has returned: he is returned. He is eternal return. As my sentences begin to tilt towards the drift, I shall return too, to the song itself. Writing is a poor substitute for synaesthesia. In its most ideal forms, music is the only true confluence of the senses, the elusive gesamtkunstwerk; and Scott Walker is perhaps the only man in popular music who makes that ideal real.