Garden of Delights and Demons

SCOTT WALKER / Bish Bosch (4AD)

"See You Don’t Bump His Head” is one of the titles on Scott Walker’s new album. It probably has nothing to do with something having happened to Walker himself. Probably. But Walker’s music can seem disturbed, and it is always disturbing, as is this abstruse persona of his. Walker’s Bish Bosch is on the surface a weird experience, weird in the scary sense, yes, though it’s weird in a bleakly, terribly funny way as well. Scott Walker likes to be scary and weird, though his art, apparently, is not intended to merely weird one out.

You could say it’s long been this way with Walker, or you could say it’s a more recent development. In the ‘60s he was a big pop star, with the Walker Brothers (“The Son Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”); then he went solo and segued ever more obscurely into a phase as an avantly alternative lounge artiste warbling opulently orchestrated Jacques Brel covers, and then more and more tilted art-pop records through the ’70s and ‘80s. Our first hint that something off was afoot was an opening set of gloomy, murkily faraway songs on the final Walker Brothers album, 1978's Nite Flights; something was happening to the man, and whatever it was manifested itself again on the post-punky medievalist art-whatsit of Climate of Hunter (1984). There came a longish break (during which…?) out of the spotlight, then Walker re-emerged with 1995's Tilt and 2006's The Drift, two very abstract, profoundly difficult and utterly enthralling documents of…of what?

The Drift gave off the distinctively blurry vibe of someone who long ago gave up the ghost and headed for Gomorrah. Amid a worrisome mass of bleak-house strings, tornado-cometh guitars and electronic shred and whir, Walker coughed and staggered forward again, down a hallway of his, perhaps, horrific life. Walker, compelled to turn the corner into the darkest, dankest rooms, crooned in a cracked sort of way. He croaked and wheezed as if in complete loss of control. This effect was in part masterful acting and musicianship. Walker was inventing a musical language, as if to start wholly from scratch, as if it could be done only this way –– considering all that’s happened.

Walker’s sound design/structures on The Drift were an all-embracing but tradition-rejecting total-music whose most similar forebear could be John Cale’s production work on Nico’s The Marble Index and Desertshore albums, where vast, impenetrable clouds of “dissonant” string chords, electric guitars retching and suffering brutal contractions in odd tunings, fearful evanescent spirit voices (our own) and altogether unidentifiable skewerings of sonority mixed not just for depth but for crosstalk, feedback and transparency. For Walker that transparency was a necessary effect, as his horror stories’ protagonist/observer passed through the music like a ghost would wander through walls, from one dusty, cold room to another.

Bish Bosch is somehow a much better-humored work than The Drift, as if Walker has “come to terms with” a portion of the old deviltry that has plagued his complex self for all these many years (apparently). Spilling over like a creepy old box of toys with jarring/cacophonous orchestral shards, abrasive metallic guitar slashes, curdling synth whirrs and percussive knife-sharpening sounds, Bish Bosch is: ugly, ambitious, sprawling, perplexing, humorous, ambiguous. Walker’s allusive lyrics quick-cut, hybridize, play with and explore art history, literature, physics, psychology and poesy itself; here are a few more song titles: “Corps De Blah,” “SDSS14 13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” “Dimple,” “Tar,” “The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died” –– a booklet accompanies the album if you wish to study his unique new lyrical structures.

The California-born Scott Walker’s mind is like a Mayan maze; you can wonder if there’ll be anyone at home when you finally reach the maze’s center, if indeed you ever do, which is doubtful. You will have heard music along the way, however: perplexing, grotesque, menacing, exhilarating, mysterious, sad, threatening, impenetrable, psychologically wracking music. Thrilling music. Not pop music as such, but just imagine a world in which it could be termed like that. A Scott Walker world. Different. Very, very different.

photo: Jamie Hawkesworth

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