At the end of the 2006 biographic film 30 Century Man, Scott Walker talks about where his music might go next. After giving birth to his then most recent album, The Drift, fans, admirers, and listeners wondered what they had to look forward to next, even though it might take another decade to appear. Walker tentatively answered twofold: “My dilemma now is to try to go for something with smaller forces that I can do some touring with, or just let my imagination roll, like I always have.” Even though audiences knew he would likely fall deeper into the dark recesses of his self-confessed “nightmarish imagination,” the mere idea that something completely different–or just different in any way–might be on the far-off horizon was something of a preoccupying and exciting prospect.
In a way, his new album, Bish Bosch, is something from both sides. Coming a mere six years (compared to the usual ten) after The Drift, the announcement of a new Scott Walker album was enough to throw the music world into quiet excitement. If not unknown in most households, Walker might remain famous for being one of the three members of the 1960’s pop-band The Walker Brothers and be remembered for their timeless, chart-topping hits like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy On Yourself.” If anything, 30 Century Man confirmed the fact that Walker was (and remains) a highly respected musician, composer, and poet, admired by numerous other performers like David Bowie, Allison Goldfrapp, Brain Eno, and Jarvis Cocker.
Walker’s description of “something with smaller forces” could be taken two ways. The first would imply a further deconstruction of the baroque-pop arrangements he gradually darkened and refined over his first four albums, moving further away from the idea of both “arrangements” and, as Walker described the tracks on The Drift, “blocks of sound.” It suggests working with less, but the word “force” is worth keeping in mind; apart from the acoustic songs closing his last three albums, and a few other scattered moments, Walker’s music has always been something that relied on “force,” on impacting the listeners mind and eardrums, and hurtling at them in a deceptive, intriguing, and stabbing manner. The other line of thought is simply just working with less, stripping away instruments and binding sounds moreso, and creating something skeletal, something sparser. Bish Bosch is all of this–and a whole lot more.
The album is a widening and a deepening of the style we’ve come to expect of Walker – but it’s also got elements of a brightening of that sound as well. Bish Bosch isn’t quite as desolate and dark as The Drift, nor is it as overtly musical as Walker’s 1995 masterpiece, Tilt. It favours more experimentation, more black humour, more textures, and more variety. In the space of one song (I use the word “song” loosely and in a relative manner) you’ll hear guitar strings bend and distort, strings screech, chisels at work, static fizzle and disappear, sound effects gurgle and heave about like the inside of a stomach, as Walker sings into deep, pregnant silences. It might sound like something that already exists in his back catalogue, and you wouldn’t be wrong in saying that, but on Bish Bosch Walker’s set-up is more staccato and schizophrenic than ever before. On the first few listens, tracks like the one just described, “Corps De Blah,” “Dimple,” and “Tar” might go by as scattered sequences of noise, strings, guitars, and percussion, all held together by Walker’s ever-alluring baritone, but they are detailed, careful movements through dark worlds, only occasionally held together by recurring sounds and leitmotifs. In a sentence, the content of Bish Bosch might sound familiar with its unpredictability–but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest. It’s notoriously heavy, full of references that will elude you without lyric sheets, centering on characters from history you’ve never heard of, and containing sound worlds that will frighten, amuse, and beguile you.
The brightening, then, could also be interpreted in number of ways. Walker’s recent album have always contained plenty of wry, black humour, that seems to poke as much fun at his song’s victims as it does himself but here he seem more tongue-in-cheek than ever before. Even though he’s said that his work isn’t autobiographical in any way, it’s impossible to hear phrases and not imagine Walker is talking about him or his own music. Opening track “’See You Don’t Bump His Head’” begins the album in a similar manner to how “Cossacks Are” opens The Drift, throwing out phrases that read like descriptions of his style. “A mythic instance of erotic impulse,” Walker croons over an unrelenting drumbeat as starry flourishes and tremulous ripples of guitar pass by. It’s like “being crushed from the inside out,” as Walker himself sings later in the song. Both the astoundingly gripping twenty-minute centrepiece “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” and sparse final track “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died” come off as songs that achingly carry on this idea, though they respectively describe Attila The Hun’s deformed jester, and the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed on Christmas day in 1989, making those sleigh bells all the more ominous, and souring the brief, light-hearted “Jingle Bells” melody.
But even Walker’s voice seems to be opening up. Here he plays it like an instrument, singing to create as much nuance as possible, like how other musicians might try to capture the creaking of a piano, or the tremble of guitar strings. On “Phrasing” he gasps as he asks “Did ya?,” putting the focus on the tiny breath he takes after the line, whereas on the same song you’ll find him cranking up the levels, pushing his voice to absolute forefront of the picture as he repeats “Pain is not alone.” Elsewhere you’ll find him crooning into nothingness, like at the beginning of “Corps De Blah” where he almost mumbles his words before apologetically singing, “Excuse me/ Dear God/ Excuse me.” On “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” he goes one further, screaming into the microphone in a move that’s both thrilling and completely unexpected from a 69 year-old who was once adored by hundreds of screaming girls.
It’s his words that seem to play the most important part, though. On Bish Bosch Walker’s language is almost something else, even verging off into sporadic instances of nonsensical syllabification or outdated slang (see the excitable “Epizootics!,” which features your new favourite brass instrument, the tubax). They fit in perfectly to the surrounding territory, as Walker’s words become fuller of meaning and imagery with just the way they sound. “Slosh,” “plop,” and “tooting” all come up in “Corps De Blah” and while they might read like childish onomatopoeia on paper, in context they create an effective, curdling, disgusting, and crude image of piles of bodies. It’s easy to picture soldiers walking past pits full of corpses, commenting on them like they’re objects that embarrass themselves in death with the sounds of skin and the releasing of gas and fluids.
It’s not easy listening to Bish Bosch (listen to it for hours on end and “You’ll end up dead,” according to a derisive Walker), but it feels easier to take in than The Drift or Tilt’s most beautifully harrowing moments. Perhaps it’s the variety of sounds and textures, which has me wanting to compare Walker to Gilderoy, the main character in the 2012 Peter Strickland film, Berberian Sound Studio. Walker has become the Foley Artist of his own mind, of his own dreams and nightmares, of his own darkly funny and pessimistic outlook. Unlike Gilderoy, Walker avoids becoming completely overtaken by his world, and in the past it took a simple human and acoustic track like “A Lover Loves” to confirm that he hadn’t become a victim himself. On Bish Bosch the ways out are peppered across the album: the gaping silences on ““SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” come off as opportunities to leave the room (especially after it sounds like he’s just directed an insult at you); brief flashes of humour and brighter instrumentation (the samba section on “Phrasing,” for example); or just the fade-out and temporary absence of distressing noise (the moments where the sharpening machetes step aside on “Tar”). But as much as you might want to leave, whether it’s out of fear or misunderstanding, you’re probably going to be driven by a greater desire to walk further into the darkness. Like the sugar rush addiction of upbeat pop music, there’s an alluring temptation with darkness, to be surrounded in it and to revel in it.
The album leaves the question open of what’s next for Walker. Bish Bosch is the last in a trilogy of albums, which makes perfect sense as it shares many details with its two predecessors, along with other structural similarities, but it leaves the door open for Walker, which I suppose it has always been for him. Moving at his own deliberate pace, he’ll more than likely take his time in deciding where to go next, and whether the next step is something with even “smaller forces,” or just another trip into his personal abyss is truly anyone’s guess now. He’s certainly said he wants to do something different: “I’ve made three records in the same atmosphere, and I feel I have to do something really different next time. Just for my own stimulation, something lighter.” Who knows what the end result of that train of thought might be. Until then, there’s Bish Bosch, another Scott Walker album to absorb, fascinate, and spook us. It’s like Christmas come early.
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