Just who is Scott Walker? Women who were cooking pineapple hams and doing the house cleaning in the '60s have a very specific image of him as the panty-moistening dreamboat of MOR specialists The Walker Brothers; those that came of age while dodging spitballs from Johnny Rotten will recall being urged onto Walker's back catalogue through the proselytizing of Julian Cope; readers of Brit avant-music mag The Wire may have stumbled across references to the enigmatic artist in its pages; casual hipsters who cry and cuddle during Wes Anderson's stiflingly earnest moving pictures caught a brief sonic glimpse on The Life Aquatic soundtrack which included the short Walker composition from which this particular doc takes its name; and David Lynch fans: wondering what the maestro might do next? If you can, imagine something even more nightmarish, surreal and impenetrable than Inland Empire, and you'll find a clue and something of an audio equivalent in Walker's latest album, 2006's The Drift.
If that serves to complicate the original question further, so be it. Scott Walker seems to be defined by what he isn't rather than by what he is - the language for that doesn't quite exist yet. Scott Walker: 30 Century Man is a fascinating portrait of a man who went from near-Beatles fame in the '60s to a self-imposed exile for a near 20 year period, returning to release some of the darkest, harshest, but strangely beautiful work ever recorded. The rare interviews with Walker in the film serve to edify his process, but not necessarily the music itself. This is important, because the onus is still placed on the viewer/listener to impart their own meaning into his dense, troubling lyrics.
In an age where 99% of all pop music is created to placate, coddle, massage the listener's mind into a state of wonderful numbness, Walker's sounds rip the lollipop out of your mouth, shove you into a black pit and force you to confront your own demons, Helen Keller-style, but without the whole deaf thing. This makes many people uncomfortable; after all, who wouldn't prefer to be led by the hand, to be told, "It's going to be fine"? The imagery of his lyrics is so bold and almost painterly (Francis Bacon, not Robert Bateman), that they can at times be literally jarring. Who wants that? Not one unnamed and unapproachable ex-Monday night co-worker, who hated it when I played him a snippet of Farmer In The City from Walker's essential Tilt. I felt my inner Jack Nicholson rising to shout, "You can't handle the truth!", but instead calmly made him a tea, sat him in front of his console, and, with a pat on the head and some helpful reassurance that he would certainly solve this round of Fantastic Contraption, slunk away and pressed play on the cream-clad iPod, the saccharine jangle of the first chords of some anonymous Z-side from Oingo Boingo seeping from the subwoofer....
The DVD will be a tough recommend: Walker fans likely had a copy on pre-order 6 months before it was released, and the rest of the music-doc loving world falls into two camps: those that want Rolling Stones: Shine A Light, and those that want Wilco: I Am Trying To Gobble Your Knob. However, I'll keep flogging this one, if only to wake people up to the fact that there is still some supremely good music being created, and hey, isn't it cool that Scott actually had a guy in the studio punching a side of beef for a sound on The Drift?
In the film, Walker is likened to Eliot, Beckett, and Joyce, and read his lyrics over and over enough times and the comparison isn't such a stretch. Call him pretentious, call him a genius, call him a pioneer, a modern day Captain Beefheart, the anti-Brian Wilson; or call him, as Brian Eno does, "not only the most important modern composer, but also the most important modern poet". Hell, call him Scott Walker: 30 Century Man - it's as ambiguous and exact a descriptor you're bound to come across. If you're still on the fence, you must have missed those names. A must watch; a must listen. Just don't expect an easy go of it; it's dark music for dark times.
This is in my top 10 of the year.