Friday, December 21, 2012

FEATURE 110 ~ Scott Walker ~ Bish Bosch

In advance of the release of Bish Bosch, I relistened to his previous two albums, The Drift (2006) and Tilt (1998 ).  These albums are not easy things to become fond of. Ruthlessly dedicated to experiment and determinedly opaque lyrically, they veer between the intimacy of confession and the most grand of grand dystopian operas. The term avante guarde, is often misapplied to things that are merely the musical equivalent of petulant stroppiness. Walker's recent output is worthy of being called avante guarde, truly on the cutting edge of things, it challenges, confounds, entrances, constantly breaks new ground and is what Laurie Anderson would call 'difficult music'.

I returned to 'The Drift' knowing I'd never got more than halfway through before bailing out. After the first aural battle charge of 'Cossaks Are', comes 'Clara' a ten minute epic which apparently is about the lynching of Mussolini in a public square. This proves all too intense, too bleak, too unsettling to be taken in in one sitting. So I started listening from halfway to the end, and ,yes, the darkness of Walker's vision is complete and thorough. But curiously, once it is given time to bed in and become more familiar, the bleakness softens, and one hears a deeper vein of melancholy. His music does have an refined starkness and  beauty to it, that is actually quite moving. Scott speaks in tongues that are simultaneously incomprehensible and universally recognisable. We sort of know, but don't really want to hear or risk truly understanding

In comparison to 'The Drift ', 'Tilt' appears a much softer gentler work, more prone to plangent strings, romantic surges and symphonic flourishes. The movement traveled sound wise over all three albums is similar to moving from the soundscape of Sibelius to Ligeti.. Here's one of my favourite tracks from 'Tilt', 'Patriot (A Single), sorry that this video is mostly photographs of someone's girlfriends titties. She's pretty, but I don't quite get the connection myself.

Walker has said in interviews that reviewers tend not to notice the humour in his work. Well, it's hard to find Scott. It is there, though its rather desiccated and arid. Its not in his subject matter or lyrics, but in his sound sources. In the use of the sound of a neighing donkey, on 'Jolson & Jones' from 'The Drift', for example. Though this actually sets your teeth on edge, it would be outrageously funny if it weren't framed in such a musically desolate landscape. The gravitas and profundity with which he holds his musical intent, means it can teeter on the edge of the pretentious or portentous, but it never ever tips into hilarity. No such light relief is provided to ease the existential tension he creates.

So where does 'Bish Bosch' take us, that we haven't been before? Scott has referred to it as the final part of a trilogy, that after this he's  ready for a change of style and approach. 'Bisch Bosch', in comparison to 'The Drift' is harder edged and icily sparse, it has more electronic rhythm with occasional deep heavy metal guitar flourishes. The twenty seven minute epic SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) extends the hostile morbid aspects of 'Clara' to include the heart broken, loneliness, isolation and torture of a concentration camp. Yes, its not remotely cheerful. So far I've rarely got beyond this track. Keeping up with Scott is quite an emotional commitment, but one that frequently bears fruit given time. The territory he's venturing into here. has a sense of pieces being anchored on the top of strong compulsive rhythms, such as on the track 'Epizootics.'

At this point in my familiarisation process, its hard to say whether Bish Bosch is a worse, better or an up to standard work.  My initial sense is that this is a transition work, which we wont fully understand the significance, or worth of, till the next album emerges, probably several years hence.

In the documentary about his career made before 'The Drift' was released, 30th Century Man, Scott talked about the effect his baritone voice has on the audience that hears it. That it had a comforting reassuring quality, bringing with it a sense of security and stability, which he'd found needed deliberate countering. It's a similar route that David Sylvian, also the possessor of a soft chocolate soothing baritone, has been taking with his voice on his recent sole albums  This explains the often unsettling nature of both of their contemporary work. The richness of Scott's vocal range is developing a thinner, rawer, more broken, raucous quality with each album. As if the lovely is being embedded in, and poisoned by, the unlovely.

Now in his seventies, Scott Walker is showing no signs of retiring to a care home yet. Bish Bosch highlights how comfortingly retro and safe most modern popular music has become. This is braver music, more willing to take huge risks, than that being made by men and women fifty years younger than him .

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