If you’re a regular reader of Album Of The Week, you know this space is traditionally reserved for and occupied by Tom — every Tuesday, he picks the album and then he writes about it. This week, however, he has asked me to sub in for him on the latter half of those responsibilities. Not because he’s absent or needs a break, but because this week the album he has selected for the spotlight is Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch. And Tom kinda hates Scott Walker.
That disdain dates back years. As Tom tells it: “I paid like $15 for Tilt after reading a few breathless pieces about it, then spent a month trying to appreciate it before just being like, ’Fuck this.’”
Tom’s story reminds me of another, told to me by my friend Sam, who today runs a creative writing MFA program in Washington State. Like any undergrad who studied literature and hung around with writers, Sam heard endless, effusive praise for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: the 1974 National Book Award winner; postmodern fiction’s crowning achievement; one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. So one day a couple decades ago, when a young Sam had a week or so to kill, he sat down with Gravity’s Rainbow, all 760 deliberately difficult, occasionally impenetrable pages of the thing. He read from page 1 to page 759, at which point, Sam closed the book, put it down, stood up, and walked the hell away. He wasn’t going to give Pynchon the satisfaction. Fuck this.
There’s a bit of Gravity’s Rainbow in the work of Scott Walker — his most recent work, anyway, especially his last three albums: 1995′s Tilt, 2006′s Drift, and now, Bish Bosch (the three albums apparently comprise a trilogy). It’s dense, demanding, elliptical, referential, inscrutable. It’s immersive and hallucinatory. It seems like it might be the most adventurous art in the world; it seems like it might be the work of a certifiable lunatic; it also seems like it might be a put-on. And sometimes, it seems like all those things at once — sometimes it seems like both the lunacy and the put-on are central to the adventurousness of the art. Listening to Walker reminds me of watching the Black Lodge scenes from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Is it funny? Terrifying? Visionary? Charlatanry? What’s the appropriate reaction? How did the artist intend for me to react? What the fuck is this?
It’s helpful to make comparisons here to literature and film, because in music, Walker has few peers, if any. Tom Waits has had a not-dissimilar path — like Walker, Waits evolved from a singer of fine work with straightforward commercial appeal to an avant-garde explorer with no obvious terrestrial tether — and he has created a vast body of music that is exceedingly inventive and bizarre, but only on 1993 curio The Black Rider did Waits venture as far into the wilderness as Walker does every time out. Radiohead, too — starting with “Creep,” peaking with Kid A, and never coming back — except the only Radiohead-related projects as fucked up as Walker’s work are the two scores created by Jonny Greenwood for the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson. And those analogs are anomalies. All those albums are meant to be paired with a visual component: Greenwood was scoring There Will Be Blood and The Master; The Black Rider is an opera. Walker’s work stands totally alone, center stage, as music.
And within that music, Walker’s voice frequently stands totally alone, or with minimal and/or nontraditional accompaniment (e.g., clanging swords; a side of beef used as percussion instrument; bursts of synthetic barking that sound like they were produced by the same rudimentary Casio SK-1 setting that gave us the Singing Dogs’ rendition of “Jingle Bells“). His voice is at the center of the songs; around it, the instrumentation is like an unpredictable weather pattern, shifting from hail to heat to clear midnight sky. In his early career, when he was still a pop singer, Walker’s instrument had the clean, powerful tone of Neil Diamond or Barry Manilow; on Bish Bosch, it’s a quavering, sepulchral wail: sometimes spooked, sometimes furious, sometimes maniacal. Listening to Bish Bosch, I have a recurring vision of the vocalist as a Howard Hughes-ian shut-in, drunk or demented, trying to sing The Threepenny Opera from memory, and improvising the lyrics entirely, throwing in dirty jokes, lowbrow insults, violent threats, and conflagrations of medical science, mythology, and classic film. I won’t attempt to parse the countless references contained in these lyrics — for a wealth of essential context, I will direct you to (and strongly urge you to read) the album bio, written by Rob Young. I’ll also include one section of that bio here, to give you an idea of Walker’s lyrical direction (which doesn’t totally contradict my fantasy-vision of his process):
For an example of Scott’s unorthodox songwriting techniques, take the album’s centerpiece, the twenty-minute “SDSS1416 + 13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter).” The title contains two brown dwarves: one, the coldest sub-stellar body in the universe discovered so far; the other, Zercon, was a real-life Moorish jester at the fifth century court of Attila the Hun.
But my imagination does an injustice to Walker’s laser-focused attention to detail, the specificity of his intention. In a terrific recent interview, Walker told David Toop that all his songs begin with and evolve from their lyrics: “If I work really hard on the lyric and get it right, then it will tell me whatever else to do, where to go.” Considering the nightmarish sonic destinations reached by the songs on Bish Bosch, it’s kind of fascinating to picture what exactly these words were telling Walker, but then again, the lyrics are often as grotesque, surreal, and unusual as the music (prominent themes here include dismemberment and plague). Many of the lyrics are kind of unintelligible as delivered by Walker, but I picked out a few that jumped out at me on first listen:
“Here’s to a lousy life” (from “Phrasing”).
“I’ve severed my reeking gonads / fed them to your shrunken face” (from “SDSS1416 + 13B [Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter]“).
“You’re so fat, when you wear a raincoat, people scream taxi” (also from “SDSS1416 + 13B [Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter]“).
Then I read over the lyric sheet, trying to get a picture of what I missed or couldn’t make out. I won’t bother trying to provide context or analysis — again, check out Young’s Bish Bosch bio, and try to find the lyrics online somewhere, because they really are remarkable — but I’ll offer a few, just to give you some idea of the ground from which these songs have grown:
“Epicanthic knobbler of ninon / arch to / Macaronic mahout in the mascon” (from “Corps De Blah”).
“Adepocere in a zoot / sloshing, karat / ballooning down the street” (from “Epizootics!”).
“Apropolis lip / to where / acid-fast fly / Crepey / and shiny / guanine restrain” (from “Dimple”).
Perhaps a more appropriate literary comparison than Gravity’s Rainbow here is a book that inspired that one: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Both Walker and Joyce twist words into oft-unrecognizable abstractions, occasionally pulling those words from vast, long-dead dictionaries (and creating those words from whole cloth when the need arises), deliberately building them into something daunting and primal, cerebral and mystifying, something that is arch and obscene, something that repels more than it attracts. But something that is wholly unique, vital, and timeless. I’m not by any means saying Walker is Joyce’s equivalent (or Pynchon’s equivalent, for that matter). And I certainly don’t blame Tom for saying, “Fuck this.” (FWIW I can’t stand Pynchon or Joyce.) But I do think he made the right call in highlighting Bish Bosch today. This week ushers into the universe numerous notable releases — Ke$ha’s Warrior, Memory Tapes’ Grace/Confusion, El Perro del Mar’s Pale Fire — all of which deserve to be heard and enjoyed. But unlike Bish Bosch, none of them will still be with me decades from now, teasing me, frightening me, vexing me, inviting me in, forcing me out, making me wonder, what the fuck is going on, what the fuck is he saying, what the fuck is this?
Bish Bosch is out now via 4AD.