Sunday, November 09, 2008

CD Review - Scott Walker - The Drift

Scott Walker, what galaxy is he destined for? What is he trying to communicate back to us from his rogue planet? What exactly does he do with himself between making these albums? 'The Drift' was released onto an unsuspecting world in 2006, a mere eleven years after 'Tilt', and its predecessor 'Climate of Hunter' was another eleven years before that. For the majority there is only the Scott Walker of his sixties hits. For others its the Scott Walker who turned his back on pop fame, and went all continental, and sang Jaque Brel songs, that was considered somewhat radical in its day. These days less so, though Marc Almond does appear to have entirely based his subsequent solo career on the Scott Walker model. Here Walker pits himself against a splintering fragmented musical backdrop. It has a similar effect to that created by David Sylvian on 'Blemish', of unbearable truthfulness and disconcerting honesty. As Walker grows older, he continues to go where no pretty voiced pop singer has gone before. Rather than sitting back on his reputation and completely retiring into the lifestyle of a reclusive icon - he seems to be becoming even more ambitious with increasing age - he is now at 65, officially a pensioner.

I first got caught up in the world of Scott Walker, with the mid-eighties album 'Climate of Hunter', a work issued at the height of pure electro pop. It was defiantly out of step, suffused as it was with great drifts of melancholy and a keening bartered soul. His distinctive vocal quality remained to act as emotional ballast,but its like listening to soft fudge being gradually melted. This is not sentimental or syrupy music. It was contrasted and set off against a languid background of strings and occasional dissonant tonalities from the saxophone of Evan Parker. Lyrically the songs are dominated by an intensity of feeling and expression, as opposed to an ease of comprehension. You can never be sure what the hell they are about, but they have deep deep emotional resonances. Most of them were just called Track, 3, 4, 5,6, or 7, as if he didn't want to give clues, you had to find your own connection or interpretation. They all had an unsettling atmosphere seeping out from under them, as if a bucket had a leak.

Then over a decade later came 'Tilt', the harshness and dissonance had grown stronger, song structures were slimmer, paired back and all but abandoned to expression. A bleaker, sparser cinematic sound pervades the entire album. It was as if in the intervening years Walker had gone deep into some personal 'heart of darkness' and was exhibiting what he'd discovered. So, now, eleven years after all that, we get 'The Drift'. It opens with impatient aggression. The track 'Cossacks Are' - has an insistent drum sound , a pounding irregular heartbeat, that dominates over Walker's voice, it teeters on the edge of despair, not always lush and comfortingly familiar. The words he utters are infused by some profound loss or tragic meltdown etched into sound- 'a moving aria for a vanishing style of mind' or 'A nocturne filled with glorious ideas' or It's hard to pick the worst moment'. Obviously Walker is not at ease with the state of contemporary life, and we are not left at ease when listening to it either. I have yet to sit through the album from start to finish. At some point the unsettling intensity of it overwhelms me, and I need to take a break. It is so doom laden it scratches at, and wrenches upon the emotions, similar to a destructive tornado sucking you up, spinning you round and spitting you out.

'Climate of Hunter' was as if a man were broken hearted by the end of a love affair, and a painful divorce. 'Tilt' was as if a man were wandering loveless through a desolate landscape, suffused with an air of lingering regret. 'The Drift' is as if that man is now lost in an urban nightmare, deranged, and on the edge of becoming completely unhinged, frightened by the horror surrounding him - of a diseased and corrupted humanity. This is not escapist, nor straightforwardly accessible music, its extremely challenging, with an almost operatic level of heightened emotion. Walker comes across as the eternal pessimist, grimly reaping. This is similar to the aesthetic impact of Ingmar Bergman in musical sound. It possess the same raw nerves portrayed and emotions exposed, the richness of tonality and textures, contrasted with an open vein of cathartic release. Though I do recommend this album, it is with some reservation, be warned its not remotely optimistic or positive about the future of humanity. It is partly a medieval morbid masterpiece, partly a grand thesis about mortality infecting everything we do like a disease, and partly a grotesque, apocalyptic zombie movie. 'The Drift' is not for those who are squeamish at the sight of fake blood being spilt.

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