There are mysteries, there are enigmas, and then there’s Scott Walker. Walker, an artist whose 45-plus-year career has gone from lush, orchestral pop to an exponentially more abstract approach that reached a terrifying peak on The Drift, doesn’t allow for many easy entry points. At 69 years old, Walker is long detached from symphonic Jacques Brel covers and sumptuous art pop, having spent the past two decades, at least, mutilating music into heretofore unimaginable shapes and textures. Walker no longer makes what anyone would call “pop” music. It’s much uglier, more menacing and confusing. He’s an enigma, but the sheer ambition, trajectory and sprawl of his work makes it doubly so. Just at the point when Walker’s most baffling, disturbing music seems to make some kind of vague sense, he’s moved well past it, outdoing his own strangest tendencies with some blood curdling new triumph of perplexity.
With at least two genuinely harrowing masterpieces in his discography — 1995′s Tilt and 2006′s The Drift — in addition to two prototypes (the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights and his 1984 album Climate of Hunter), Walker isn’t exactly catching anyone off guard by releasing something as difficult as his 13th album, Bish Bosch. He’s been down this road before… sort of. Discordant orchestral arrangements, lyrics of nightmarish psychological horror rife with allegory and historical allusion, the odd bit of left-field sound effects — this much we’ve come to expect. It’s the extent to how he applies them that makes any new effort on the part of Walker all the more intriguing, if fluidly impenetrable.
From the moment one reads the title of Bish Bosch, there are clues to analyze, footnotes to highlight and sections to bookmark. His own website for the album defines the phrase in two ways, the first a combination of a slang term for “bitch” and Hieronymous Bosch, the artist whose bleak canvases of bacchanalia and human suffering mark a fitting parallel to Walker’s own musical portraits of life at its most grotesque. The second definition, however, is British slang for “job done” or “sorted,” which can be read almost ironically, given how the album, from a listener’s point of view, will almost invariably have something new to unpack and grab hold of on each listen. The album itself may be a finished work, but it’s not going to be finished with you anytime soon.
The first sound on Bish Bosch is a relentless pounding, the rhythmic thump of “See You Don’t Bump His Head.” It’s not the most brutal thing Walker has recorded, but it still hits with a kind of furious intensity, in a way preparing the listener with one of the record’s more direct tunes (not unlike 2006′s “Cossacks Are”), but likewise fully immersing that same listener into the kind of abstract terror that consumes the remainder of the album. It takes some twists and turns — the bass-drum knock fades in and out, an abrasive metal-edged guitar riff emerges — but in context, it’s fairly straightforward. It’s a warning shot, but it draws blood.
Finding one’s way through Bish Bosch‘s 73-minute labyrinth takes a few listens, a rich bibliography and a little bit of body armor, but as is Walker’s wont, it’s brimming with dark humor. The ten-minute “Corps de Blah” is, on the whole, a chilling mixture of bare-bones ambience and modern classical spine tingles. Yet it likewise features a passage punctuated by fart noises, introduced by Walker’s declaration, “The sphincter’s tooting our tune.” Even more impenetrably intriguing is the 22-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)”, a vast world-eater of a composition that, according to a press release, references two “brown dwarfs” in its title: the coldest sub-stellar body in the universe, and a Moorish jester at the court of Atilla the Hun. Such is only the tip of an iceberg that plunges deep into Greek and Roman history and contains a long string of hilariously scathing insults: “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band“; “Does your face hurt? Because it’s killing me“; et al.
No matter how bleak or unbearably intense Walker gets, more than ever on Bish Bosch he seems to have fun with textures and atypical arrangements. “Tar” is built on a percussive pattern of sharpening knives, touched up with eerie guitar riffs, tubax bursts and an eventual cascade of discordant strings. “Epizootics!” is easily the most accessible track on the album, which is to say it would be the most bizarre on anyone else’s, yet still catchy in a twisted way. It’s an almost danceable whirlwind of tubax and handclaps, even sort of fun, as twisted as that sounds. “Phrasing” strings together numerous links of surprises on a lengthy chain, from dark ambience to conga rhythms, heavy metal guitars and a characteristically twisted toast: “Here’s to a lousy life!” And much like “A Lover Loves,” “The Day the `Conducator’ Died” closes the album with a gentle, almost conventionally pretty dirge that’s weightless, yet chilling on a much more subdued scale.
There’s no point in sugarcoating the fact that Bish Bosch is a pretty dark and forbidding listen. It’s definitely not for everyone, and even those enamored of Walker’s stunning ’60s-era work may very well find this nut a bit tough to crack. Yet those not so easily intimidated by its anguished juxtapositions of aural menace and wry humor, or its pursuit of all things tonally difficult and melody unfriendly, will likely find much to celebrate here. Bish Bosch is the work of a singular artist, a fucked-up vision that pays off the closer it comes into focus. Scott Walker doesn’t make strange music for the sake of doing so; there’s a purpose to his sometimes mad feats of art demolition. We may not always know what that purpose is, but Bish Bosch is a glorious and fascinating path toward figuring it out.
Video: Scott Walker – “Epizootics!”