“We’re All Alone” was a standard almost the minute that Boz Scaggs finished writing it. Released on his masterwork, Silk Degrees, in 1976, within a year it had been covered by Frankie Valli, Bruce Murray, Rita Coolidge, the Three Degrees and the Walker Brothers. It’s been covered plenty more times since.
It’s easy to see what would attract a singer to such a song, but Scott Walker is no ordinary singer and in light of his work since “The Electrician” remade his career in 1978, one does have to wonder whether he sang the song with his arm twisted behind his back. Nonetheless the Walkers’ version is one of the most appealing, the track mixed drier and closer than the cavernous Scaggs version, Scott’s vocal managing to combine the warmth that Coolidge’s alto brought to the song with some of the soaring lightness of Boz’s performance.
Such AOR covers are not what Scott Walker is known for today. To the extent that he is known at all, it’s for his quartet of solo albums from the late 1960s Scotts – 1 through 4 – and the three arty, avant-rock albums he’s made since the Walkers broke up for the second time, a sound that was previewed on his contributions (including “The Electrician”) to the last Walker Brothers record, Nite Flights. These records are apt to leave reviewers groping for superlatives. Or scratching their heads.
Like many others, I often feel humbled in the presence of latter-day Scott Walker. His work is clearly that of a rare imagination and aesthetic sensibility. He creates music that wouldn’t occur to most people and his sonic curiosity is obvious. Yet while prettiness and beauty are not the same thing, they’re not mutually exclusive either and since his music began moving away from conventional tonality, melody and rhythm in the 1990s, Walker has limited his scope as a songwriter. For him to present straightforward expressions of everyday feelings like love, hope or empathy in the declamatory, highly theatrical voice he has sung in since Tilt would be ridiculous; he knows it, so he doesn’t.
But people (myself included) like music that expresses of love, hope and empathy. Walker’s writing is now so ornate, so stagey (“Samuel Beckett at La Scala”, as one critic described it), that it can no longer be a vehicle for reflection on the small moments in life, the minor disappointments and simple consolations. Death, disease, pestilence, terrorism – these are the subjects he’s left himself. And while that is radical subject matter within popular music (at least, outside of thrash and death metal), surely what would be truly radical would be a sensibility that allowed for both “The Cockfighter” and covers of “We’re All Alone”, that treated both the same? I’m not being conservative here; I’m not arguing that he should stop recording the sound of himself punching dead animal carcasses. Tilt and The Drift are excellent records. But his first producer, John Franz, was right when he judged Walker one of the great ballad singers and it’s a shame that we no longer get to hear him do something he was so good at.
Yet Walker is on his own little-travelled path – from teen idol to intrepid adventurer in form and sound – and it’s reassuring to know that such journeys can be made by anyone, wherever they start from. I’m looking forward to hearing the found-sound records that Justin Bieber will no doubt be making in 2050.