Walker’s philosophical leanings meant he occasionally succumbed to pretentiousness, but they were also what made him more than just another crooner abusing the great American songbook all the way to Vegas. Which is pretty much what he became in the following decade, releasing a string of mediocre cover albums that dipped into country and cabaret.
It was not until 1978 that he picked up the threads from Scott 4 songs like “Angels of Ashes” and “Boy Child”—fragile, lambent, otherworldly—on the ill-fated Walker Brothers reunion, Nite Flights. “The Electrician,” in particular, prefigured his later work. Again, those psycho-movie strings, now wedded to an ominous bass line and a lyric about an executioner in South Africa sung in a sluggish slur: “If I jerk the handle / You’ll die in your dreams / If I jerk the handle / Jerk the handle / You’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me.”
Two things happened here. First, Walker ditched his doomed romantic persona and started writing characters. This was crucial: It allowed him to retain his tragic mood while divorcing it from self-indulgence. Secondly, he began to write about the world as a horror show—the first Iraq war (“Patriot [A Single]”), the Holocaust (“The Cockfighter”), drugs (“Dealer”), and, on The Drift, the public stringing up of Mussolini (“Clara”).
This is not the commemorative, self-glorifying style of “political music” practiced by U2, or even the empathetic reportage of Springsteen. Instead, Walker speaks from inside the events he writes about. If he sings about an executioner, he sings about the turn-on of killing someone. If he sings about a junkie, he verbalizes the drug experience. And makes it sound like an agonized rhapsody.
Without Walker’s occasional hints, we might have no idea what any of these songs refer to. Even when we do, much remains opaque. Yet this is what makes them more than simply topical. The images burrow down into your subconscious anyway. Mystery is part of the point.
It’s also part of the persona. In that BBC interview, Walker’s interlocutor peppered him with variations on “You’re a bit of a weird recluse, aren’t you?” Walker responded with infinite calm and sanity. He chooses to retreat behind the work, to resist autobiography. In an age where branding your personality is the preferred art form, he couldn’t be more out of time.