Scott Walker's Bish Bosch on
My introduction to Scott Walker didn't happen until 2006, when I bought The Drift on CD after reading some glowing reviews. I had no real knowledge of the Walker Brothers, and even their biggest single—"The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"—sounded only vaguely familiar. But the idea of an old pop singer from the '60s creating an utterly dark, challenging work appealed to me, so I picked it up at Tower Records in Northridge, California, and played it in my car on the way home. That was a mistake. I couldn't really hear the wealth of subtle musical details above the drone of my car engine—all I heard was that ghostly crooning amid the occasional percussive maelstrom. "What pretentious crap," I said to myself. "Art for art's sake."
Then I performed a series of actions that slowly endeared me to this odd, seemingly tortured sexagenarian. After a few days, I decided to give The Drift a second listen using my home reference system. What was dark, disturbing and two-dimensional in my car now became a deep, soulful and artistic howl full of delicate and unique sonic flourishes. Then I examined the lyrics via the enclosed booklet and discovered a true poet who was consumed by history, not nightmares. We're treated to the inner thoughts of Clara Petacci, mistress of Benito Mussolini, as she races through the plaza to be executed alongside of her one true love. We sit with Elvis in a dark hotel room as he watches the events of 9/11 unfolding on his television set, and his only companion is his stillborn twin/lifelong imaginary friend Jesse. He cries "I'm the only one left alive" into the empty room. All the while, Cossacks are charging into fields of white roses. The music sounds terrifying and feverish, but the subject matter is clear-headed and literate, and occasionally even funny.
From that point I did something unique. I worked my way backward through the Scott Walker catalog. As in the films Memento and Irreversible, going backwards causes you to see things differently. Whereas most Walker Brother fans watched one of their favorite singers in the world slowly descend into an experimental madness over the decades, I witnessed more of the sheer humanity of Scott as he submitted to the pressures of stardom. The clues of his struggles with his inner demons became more obvious, with the flashpoint obviously being "Farmer in the City" from 1995's Tilt—utterly beautiful melodies delivered by a string orchestra, and lyrics alarmingly cryptic at best. The icing on the cake was watching later Scott Walker interviews where he fielded questions concerning the decade-long span between releases and rumors of his reclusiveness with a modicum of dismay.
I'm not reclusive. I'm right here. There have been times when it seemed like no one was interested in what I wanted to say. I'm not a recluse.
That brings us to Bish Bosch, which comes a mere six years after The Drift. It seems like no one expected it this soon. Or, more accurately, it seems like someone watched all those Scott Walker interviews and said, "I'm interested in what you have to say, Scott—and by the way I have a recording studio." So while Scott Walker is undeniably a very acquired taste, it seems that more and more people these days are willing to imbibe. On some level, Scott must realize this because Bish Bosch, which is now considered to be part of a 17-year-long trilogy that includes Tilt and The Drift, is a hoot. Compared to the other two albums, it's confident and amusing and ambitious and complex. Unlike The Drift, which sounds like it was written and performed at the edge of an abyss, Bish Bosch is—dare I say it—more accessible and likable. Scott's extraordinary voice is stronger than it has been for years, and for once you don't think about his aging when you hear it. He sounds healthy and happy and ready to entertain.
That certainly doesn't mean the album is light, pop-oriented fare. Scott is just as out there as ever, with songs about haunted Jacuzzis, flagpole sitters and Nicolai Ceausescu dominating the album. You won't see songs like "Epizootics!" or "The Day the 'Conducator' Died" or the twenty-minute epic "SDSS1416+13B" climbing up the Billboard charts in 2013. But if you want a quick, ten-minute example of just how much more enjoyable Bish Bosch is, check out www.bishbosch.com and watch the hypnotic yet amusing video for "Epizootics!" Shot mostly in extreme slow-mo by Olivier Groulx, the video begins with a slowly undulating hula dancer, pleasingly plump, with her teeth painted black:
Subsequent shots include a possibly nude woman reclining in an overgrown meadow, a daddy longlegs crawling across a woman's stomach, maggots clustered on a hibiscus flower and a man slowly getting up after presumably being knocked to the ground. Every minute or so the film speeds up to normal to show the rapidly repeated dance moves of a jitterbugging couple. Finally, we are shown the troubled yet beautiful face of English actress Gina Bramhill as Scott sings, "Sweet Leilani, heavenly flower." If you dig this video, and I did beyond all measure, you will probably dig Bish Bosch as a whole.
If Bish Bosch has anything in common with The Drift, it is Scott's wondrous obsession with sound. In the latter album he clanked bottles together and pounded out the beat with a huge slab o' meat hanging from a hook. On Bish Bosch you'll hear the sounds of machetes sliding their blades together, a tubax, Hawaiian pedal steel guitars, white noise, ram horns and even sleigh bells on the closing "The Day the 'Conducator' Died," which is also subtitled "An Xmas Song." In fact, the last thing you'll hear on Bish Bosch is a toy xylophone delivering a few iconic notes from "Jingle Bells." What you'll also hear, somewhat unexpectedly, is plenty of electric guitars, bass guitars and drums. Sometimes they even play at the same time. For a few fleeting moments of "SDSS1416+13B," Scott and his band actually go punk. Scott screams angrily and convincingly—not bad for a guy who just turned seventy.
Being a vinyl guy, I had to own the double-LP set. You get the now-common digital download code and a hefty booklet containing the complete and extensive lyrics (the words for "SDSS1416+13B" take up eight whole pages). You also get a supremely quiet pressing that allows you to hear all the inner detail, especially some thunderous sounds that are listed in the credits as "lo rumbles." I'm not saying the CD or the digital files don't convey the same information. But I own Tilt on both CD and LP, and the vinyl adds a lushness that certainly acts as a counter to Scott Walker's chilling and challenging approach to sound. When offered, I'll take the LP.
If Bish Bosch is the end of a trilogy, that begs the question of what Scott Walker will do next. His career is certainly marked by chapters: the king-of-the-world days with the chart-topping Walker Brothers (at one point in the '60s their UK fan club had more members than the Beatles UK fan club), the four seminal solo albums in the late '60s and early '70s that defined him as a songwriting talent, his subsequent interest in the Jacques Brel catalog, the brief and unsuccessful reunion with his bros and finally the last four albums (including 1984's Climate of Hunter, rare and coveted). He could hang it up at seventy, confident that he said what he wanted to say, and people listened—even though he ended up with an audience vastly different than the one he had in his heyday.
But I have another theory. I think Scott should release a straightforward album of pop standards while he still has that amazing voice. (In some ways, he's the anti-Rod Stewart.) Those songs, delivered in the twilight of his career, would be far more shocking than anything on Bish Bosch.