Scott Walker is deliberate. It has been 6 years since his last record “The Drift” and it was 11 years’ wait for that one even. He takes his time to produce art that stands as close to his objective as possible. With a sonorous voice that projects as vibrato-laden baritone somewhere between Broadway and Tom Waits, Scott Walker would be the last person a fan in the 60’s would consider a contemporary fire-breathing avant-garde composer in 2012. Scott Walker, the pseudonym for native Ohioan Noel Scott Engel, has one of the most stunning life stories in all music and the interested fan should indulge in viewing “Scott Walker: 30 Second Man,” a documentary which chronicles his circuital route from 1950’s pop heartthrob to 60’s folk songwriter to contemporary composer and poet.
Known for his disturbing lyricism and exquisitely frightening instrumentation, Walker seems to have a chip on his shoulder to distance himself from his pop balladry and show tune days of his youth. Having been thrust into the spotlight as a member of The Walker Brothers in the 50’s and 60’s who were branded by the recording industry as students of the glitzy Vegas big band style vocals of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Walker now seems to have fully stepped independently into a role incommensurable by any other musician.
“Bish Bosch,” his newest release via the esteemed indie label 4AD, continues in the endeavors of his two previous records, utilizing sparse and varied instrumentation that ebbs and swells to subject the listener to his macabre lyricism sung with a high flying operatic delivery. Walker’s voice is the star player at every moment of this record, standing alone with instrumentation only as a conduit for setting the mood which is itself usually horrific in texture. Shocking moments lend the music a horror movie quality while infrequent use of deep end instrumentation provides a thinness that allows for experiencing the whole record in one take without needing to come up for air. To call this music dramatic is an understatement. To label it is an impossible constriction. Take Sinatra, beat him senseless with a bat labeled “Jazz,” tape his eyes open to force the reading of Edgar Allan Poe, and give him an orchestra full of electric guitar, tribal rhythms, demonic string players and shimmering bells and you got something resembling Walker.
But this eccentric orchestra notwithstanding, a major difference between any more straight ahead operatic music and Walker’s is his extreme focus on properly forumulating his lyrics during his writing process. He says himself, “I’ve said this before, deathlessly, but it all starts with the lyric for me. If I work really hard on the lyric, and get it right, then it will tell me whatever else to do, where to go.” Walker comes through in this regard, you find lyrics both witty and twisted in this record that play out with instrumentation that seems to emanate from Walker’s mouth along with the vocals. He wants the effect of his lyrics to hit as hard as possible, not in volume but in quality. “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band” he proclaims in the masterful and patient 21 minute track “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)” as he wrestles with one of many hundred different anxious thoughts found in the record. It seems inconceivable that a man who appears as troubled as Walker could find it in him to produce some disparate moments of incredible beauty amongst his instrumental composition.
Scott Walker’s ‘Bish Bosh’ Album Preview
Indeed, poetry is the focus of Walker’s artistic expression with instrumentation complimentary as artwork on a cafe’s walls would simply enrich the experience of dining there or participating in drink. But the record taken together is not content to simply play fancifully in the background. This record is a musical equivalent of an art house film, meant to be experienced with all its jarring brutality and risk-taking in a room of artistic faithful. There are moments of deep self-conscious silence. There are moments of huge bombastic swells that are ironically beautiful, yet the lion’s share of the record maintains a formula of one or two sounds at once which never give way to anything even remotely resembling a groove or a verse or a hook. To see this nuanced music performed live would bring goosebumps to any listener who could give the benefit of the doubt to the expressiveness of the music. That said, this is a difficult listen.
It is unlikely that Walker will be winning many people over who haven’t already become accustomed to his cheesy but exemplary showtunes style voice which at one point literally accompanies the sounds of reverb laden flatulence followed by strings played like fingers scratching a chalkboard. If nothing else, Walker is ambitious to the highest degree and this is sure to live on as one of his most enduring qualities when his works are examined by music historians in the future. His poetry alone could stand on its own as a contemporary nod to Graveyard and Surrealism styles. His music could be arranged for any number of orchestral forms by taking his vocals and dispersing the melody lines properly throughout the instruments. That Walker will have a legacy is at this time assured and it will be interesting to see how his music is interpreted by performers in the future. There are many different ways to approach listening to his music, and thus many different ways in which it could be articulated by artists paying tribute to one of the most polarizing contemporary composers.
For now, a new record by Scott Walker has dropped and has all the fixings necessary to listen multiple times over without coming to understand all the appreciable points. If the last twenty years are any indication, Walker’s fan base must be content to pick apart this record for years to come. But if in that time Walker finds inspiration, then the long wait until this masterful composer releases new material will be well worth the wait.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Contributor