, December 7th, 2012 07:02
In an essay written to accompany the release of Scott Walker's new album Bish Bosch, Rob Young claims the former Walker Brother has, over the course of a sequence of records beginning with 1984's Climate of Hunter, developed "a late style utterly at odds with the music that made him a superstar".
One can see why many – even those as clued-up as Young – might feel this to be true. From certain perspectives, Walker's career hinges on the break of the mid-eighties, before which he was a performer of skewed romantic pop, and after which he became incorrigibly committed to envelope-pushing indebted to the literature (notably Beckett and Paul Celan) and music (particularly György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis) of postwar European modernism. Indeed, the very idea of 'late style' emerges from the context of that ultra-ascetic avant-garde: the notion was cultivated by Theodor Adorno, late modernism's great theorist, to describe the way that Beethoven's mature work enacted – in Edward Said's helpful paraphrase – "a contradictory, alienated relationship" with his earlier compositions. As Said put it, late style represents "a form of exile" from an oeuvre.
However, the concept of late style is only partially helpful here. For a start, there's the fact that Walker's 'late' period has now lasted twenty-eight years, a span of time greater than that which elapsed between the 1964 formation of The Walker Brothers and Climate of Hunter. Furthermore, as John Doran and David Peschek demonstrate in this feature, the obscurity, abstraction and absurdism which has prevailed since 1984 can be glimpsed even in some Walker Brothers releases. In this case, the radicalism of the break may be overstated, and it is more appropriate to recognise the 'pop' Walker as inhabiting the same aesthetic furrow as the latter-day sonic pioneer.
Below a review I wrote of Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow this time last year, I was taken to task by a commenter for referring to Walker's previous effort, 2006's The Drift, as 'abstract pop'. In response, I argued that The Drift was "full of pop motifs that get broken, distended, perverted", and that one of its primary strategies was subverting the repertoire of musical effects pop uses to index romantic love. One can best apprehend the relevance of this by considering the historical context in which The Walker Brothers emerged, namely a period in which pop was still figuring out its grammar of feeling. Where now – as one sees in much music which references the younger Walker, such as Richard Hawley or The Last Shadow Puppets – swelling strings and mournful horns are rather a clichéd or kitsch way of expressing romantic angst, the mid-1960s saw pop's relationship with emotion as something yet to be rigidly defined.
Walker's achievement since Climate of Hunter has been less to do with a wholesale rejection of the past in favour of establishing a late style than with using music to locate, and arguably produce, increasingly complex forms of affect. Like its immediate predecessors, Bish Bosch retains a focus on feeling, even if the sensations it sketches aren't processed enough to resemble anything on the conventional palette of emotions. Although the songs are highly-wrought and palpably inorganic – these hints of disciplined conception and manufacture are a good thing, by the way – there's nothing distant or technocratic about the album. In fact, Walker's immersion in the turmoil of what he makes is powerful enough to make this a record which asserts a claim over the complete attention of the listener. It's a claim made so frequently as to sound banal, but in this instance there really is no chance of using the music as background listening. Bish Bosch demands, and rewards, time and deliberation.
This obviously means that any review is going to be governed by certain caveats. Three or four listens over a twenty-four hour period is only really good enough to start noting coordinates for how one might approach the record in the future; its seventy-three minutes contain an astonishing amount to take in, both musically and lyrically. Still, it's possible to give a general sense of what knits the nine tracks together. Sonically, some of the major traits of The Drift reappear – monstrous, clunking lopes interspersed with patches of giddying, squealing glissandi and murderous percussion – but are executed with even more dreadful panache this time around. There are abbatoirial electronics, touches of discomforting gated reverb from the Martin Hannett catalogue, and interjections of balefully clinical guitar, and that's before the bravura dabs of audio absurdism: farts, tuneless Brechtian choruses, and, on the concluding 'The Day the "Conducator" Died' (an 'Xmas Song' commemorating the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu), the opening bars of 'Jingle Bells'.
Lyrically, there are two persistent themes which are held in tension and never quite reconciled, namely astronomy – most tracks refer to lesser-known stars and constellations – and bodily abjection. Each song provides multiple examples of the latter, but 'SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)' yields the most in terms of grossness: "No more / dragging this wormy anus / 'round on shag piles from / Persia to Thrace / I've severed / my reeking gonads / fed them to your / shrunken face" leapt out at me. Unlike the vast majority of pop lyrics – I'm looking at Bob Dylan here – those on Bish Bosch genuinely stand on their own as poetry, and seem particularly conversant with Celan's nauseated work.
The broadsheet reviewer's trick at this point in a discussion of 'late' Walker is to say something like "One Direction it ain't", and return to well-rehearsed old bromides about the tension between pop and the modernist avant-garde. What's fascinating about everything from Climate of Hunter on, however, is the way in which it resembles the most cynical Cowell-pop in its constructedness. Nothing is out of place but, more importantly, nothing feels spontaneous. This album could not have come about as the result of rockist jamming: conversely, it seems as if everything down to the most inconsequential of tambourine-rattles has been mapped out in advance. The tracks have been plotted meticulously, which makes the journey between their internal rhythmic and tonal microclimates feel like a matter of architectural necessity rather than of rehearsal-room evolution. 'Epizootics!' is a case in point, its bowel-shaking bop opening seguing gradually into a martial, moderately krautrock rhythmic battering, before song structure gives way to an atonal, Xenakis-like soundscape. Perhaps the response one feels to this is akin to revulsion or horror, but it's conjured with the same pop-savvy precision with which Walker once evoked jealousy and loss.
One word which does a lot of work in summing up Bish Bosch is 'unanswerable'. You can't tune out of it, but neither is there a key by which you might ultimately 'understand' what Walker's getting at. From the opening, strangely gabba-like rhythmic monotony of 'See You Don't Bump His Head' to the Ceaușescu number at the end, there's no yield or compromise, no room to slip the music's gaze. Not so much late style as an old practice made stiletto sharp, this is an album of a depth and ambition that should, frankly, set a standard for contemporary art music.