Birthdays are a big thing with The Belated Birthday Girl: you want to get them right. So last weekend, when her birthday came around, I wanted to take her out to something special. "Tell you what," I suggested, "how about we go to a concert featuring some of the most atonal popular music released in the last fifteen years?"
In retrospect, I could have sold it to her better.
In the end, we went for a compromise solution. On the night of her birthday, we had dinner at St Pancras Grand (a neat tie-in with last year's celebration) while jazz vocalist Lee Gibson warbled pleasantly in the background. And then, on the following night, we went to the Barbican to see Drifting And Tilting: a show based on Scott Walker's last two albums, Tilt and The Drift. If you're familiar with the records, then you'll know that we're talking the polar opposite of background music here.
We all know the Scott Walker story by now (we've seen the film): the pop stardom of the sixties, the increasingly experimental music, the withdrawal from public life, the silence broken only by an album release every decade or so. For a recluse, it has to be said that he seemed happy enough standing by the Barbican's stage door before the show, signing copies of his old vinyl records for fans. Still, we'd been warned in advance that Walker's only involvement on the night would be via the mixing desk - apparently, if you'd been in the right spot in the stalls, you could have seen him there right at the end of the show.
Instead of Walker performing his own songs, Drifting And Tilting reshapes eight of them into a theatrical evening of sorts. There's a rock band right at the back of the stage, a forty-piece string ensemble in the orchestra pit, and an interestingly random collection of vocalists. We have opera singers (Owen Gilhooly and Nigel Richards), musical theatre veterans (Michael Henry), a couple of vocalists from the trendier end of the market (Dot Allison and Gavin Friday), and two proper pop stars to top and tail the evening (Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn).
The results are somewhat mixed, and for me part of the problem is the expectation set up by the title. Thirteen years after its initial release, I'm prepared to say that Tilt is a genuinely great piece of work. It terrified listeners back in 1995 with its apparent lack of discernable tunes: but spend some time with it and you'll realise that it's awash with fabulous melodies, you just have to dig a little to find them. Those melodies are a lot harder to come by on The Drift, however, making it a much harder record to like (though people seem to fall hard for it when it clicks for them). I'd hoped that an evening of songs from the two records would balance out The Drift's blocks of terrifying sound with Tilt's ear for melody. However, on the night, the programme splits about 80/20 in favour of Drift material. Immediately, it becomes apparent that this show will require work from the audience.
That aside, there's also the small matter of the performance of the songs themselves. It was a concern that The BBG had expressed when she eventually agreed to come along: given that the songs are so completely tailored to Walker's own idiosyncratic delivery, how could the guest vocalists possibly do them justice? (A particular worry for anyone who bought tickets early, as the lineup wasn't revealed until quite late in the day.) In practice, the key thing appears to be this: you've got to commit completely to a late period Scott Walker song. Anything less, and it simply won't work.
Surprisingly, the two biggest names on the bill don't quite pull it off: though that may be down to the baggage they bring with them, or that we bring along to them. Jarvis Cocker cuts an arresting figure in his newly-grown Daniel Kitson paedobeard, reading the assorted newspaper quotes that make up opening number Cossacks Are: but the usual sardonic edge in his delivery doesn't quite gel with the material. Similarly, Damon Albarn's otherwise lovely rendition of the closing Farmer In The City brings you up short every so often when he lapses into his fake Cockney accent like a budget Anthony Newley. Additionally, he's wearing a ridiculous pair of green waders, though at least the auctioneer's desk he's standing behind stops them being a distraction.
You see, Drifting And Tilting is a theatrical presentation rather than a music recital, so the songs have all been given visual settings: storyboarded by Walker, designed by Sam Collins and directed by Ann-Christin Rommen. It makes sense - these are songs with densely constructed lyrics full of abstract imagery, so a visual interpretation based on Walker's own ideas has got to be of interest. (The least interesting number turns out to be the one with the least visual trickery attached to it - Jolson And Jones, whose threats of Galway donkey-punching are reduced to mild self-flagellation.) Unfortunately, they've frequently taken the most basic visual image in the lyric and just run with that - the newspaper for the quotes in Cossacks, or the auction setting in Farmer. It's dispiriting to see the magnificent Patriot reduced to a half-hearted dance to an off-stage vocal, with appearances by a flying newspaper during the Luzerner Zeitung-referencing refrain.
The visual highlight of the evening has to be Clara, the epic piece built around the execution of Mr and Mrs Mussolini. We get both Benito and Clara hanging by their feet, a dancer trying desperately to stay within an ever-diminishing pool of light, smart use of video projection, and - the main thing from the original recording we were all hoping for - a percussion solo involving a boxer and a dead pig on a rope. (Was that really why the Barbican slapped a 'disturbing images' warning on this show?) The only problem is, it's the longest song in the set, and quite frankly goes on a bit. But it's a fine piece of visual theatre for all that.
To my mind, there's no one number that gets the balance between the visuals and the music exactly right. But the three best performances of the evening - all, to my surprise, from The Drift - get by on the strength of that music, thanks to a trio of singers who fearlessly hurl themselves into it. Gavin Friday's rendition of Jesse is as out-there as his best work with the Virgin Prunes, while Dot Allison attacks the gruesome imagery of Buzzers with deadpan relish. Better than both, however, is Michael Henry's performance of Cue, which has to compete with two percussionists going BAM BAM BAM BAM repeatedly on huge crates, but pulls it off effortlessly.
Usually when people call something a flawed experiment, it's code for not liking it very much. But Drifting And Tilting manages to be a fascinating hour and a half, despite never quite coming together the way it wants to. There's no word as yet as to whether this short run of performances will be repeated, either at the Barbican or elsewhere. I hope that it will, as long as this is treated as a first draft rather than a finished work. There are the seeds of something astonishing within here, they just need some cultivation. Given Walker's reluctance to return to old work, that may never happen: but let's face it, he's surprised us before.