The Old Man’s Back Again…
‘The Childhood of a Leader’ is a film by debut film maker Brady Corbet. Loosley based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name and John Fowles novel The Magnus. The plot is that in 1918 an American boy witnesses the creation of the Treaty of Versailles. This is the defining moment of his life and it shapes every decision he makes after. The music was composed by cult singer songwriter Scott Walker. This is Walker’s first new material since 2014’s ‘Soused’ and it marks his third film score after 1999’s ‘Pola X’ and 2007’s ‘And Who Shall Go To The Ball?’ Like his previous scores it is a visceral affair and not for the faint hearted.
The score opens with the sound of an orchestral tuning up, then BAM, we’re off and running. ‘Opening’ sounds like a mixture of john Williams’ Imperial March and Bernard Herrmann’s theme from Cape Fear, but with the strings tuned to psychotic. It tells us this is going to be a choppy ride that will have us on the edge of our seat, both visually and musically. After the emotional rollercoaster of ‘Opening’ ‘Dream Sequence’ has a more electronic vibe to it. Droney synths form the backbone of the track while rumbling bass and screechy stabs interspace it, giving the whole piece an unsettling feeling. ‘Run’ is an ephemeral shot in the arm. Initially soaring strings envelope us as until they begin to rush through us like banshees on a misty moor. ‘Versailles’ is the lynch pin of the album. It’s a massive claustrophobic mind fuck. At times it’s almost impermeable. Dense layers of abrasive music prevent you from finding your way then, like a Cornish fog, it clears and you can see the path, only for it to be obscured a moment later. What ‘Versailles’ does perfectly is take the motifs of and emotions of ‘Opening’ and reinterpret elements of it, whilst hinting at what is to come.
‘Boy, Mirror, Car Arriving’ ratchets up the tension from the start. By the half way part the strings have been surpassed for chugging cellos. The sea-saw motion is fantastic and really closes the song on a disturbing high. ‘Third Tantrum’ feels like a reworking of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, but you know really, really terrifying! As the name suggests ‘Printing Press’ is rhythmic and mechanical. It also shows that Walker’s inventive streak is at an end. On his more recent albums he has incorporated non-instruments into his compositions. Glasses hitting a wooden table top and a man punching a dead pig have all been included. Here Walker sounds like he’s incorporated an old type writer that is being put through a wringer. Then Morse code explodes from nowhere sending out a hidden message in an unexpected moment of calm, before the tension is ramped up again. ‘Finale’ acts as a bookend to ‘Opening’. Huge, almost, distorted horns enclose us, while stabbing strings keep everything moving in a fluid manner. As with ‘Opening’ the Hermann motifs are back, but now played for all their worth. Everything sounds unrelenting, inspiring and terrifying.
Overall ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ sounds like an angry Sibelius, Delius and Shostakovich with a bit of Mica Levi thrown in for good measure and by the end of it you feel like your teeth have been pulled and your nerve endings are frayed. The only real problem with ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ is the first album in over a decade when Walker appears to be following trends, rather than creating them. This isn’t to say the album is bad, far from it, during its thirty minute duration there are moments of sublime ecstasy that make you realise how far ahead of the game he actually is. However there are moments that sound like other musicians and that isn’t what we want from any Scott Walker album, regardless of whether it’s a new solo album or a film score.