Rating:At this point, Scott Walker is as famous for simply being Scott Walker as he is for being a musician. His days of selling Top 10 albums are long over, let alone being a pop idol; by his own admission, he’s become the Orson Welles of pop music, endlessly worshipped but rarely producing much. None of that is to say that his music has diminished, though. Like many artists whose work has begun to fade in the popular consciousness, Walker long ago reinvented himself. Unlike many, though, he did it by taking a flying leap into the avant-garde, far from the pop balladry he embodied with the Walker Brothers and his own idiosyncratic early career. Since the mid-‘80s, Walker’s music has become increasingly difficult, often utilizing unconventional instrumentation and the singer’s own fractured, yet evocative lyrical imagery. His first album since 2006’s The Drift, Bish Bosch is no exception. In fact, it may be one of his most uncompromising albums yet, and that says something coming from a man who recorded the sounds of a side of beef being pummeled for his musical vision.
But no review of Walker begins without discussion of his voice. Long one of the most distinct tones in pop music, the singer has always combined the overblown emotion of opera with his own huskiness and ear for melody, but he rarely gets enough credit for the way he uses it to convey lyrics. Walker’s words may be distorted by his famed instrument, but emotion always comes through, even if the meaning sometimes escapes. On Bish Bosch, his lyrics feel deliberate and pointed, sometimes even barbed; he’s described his approach to lyric writing as being something similar to a general arranging troops for war, and it shows. Images of suffering abound through the album, sometimes even romantically. But unlike so many songs of unrequited love, Walker never comes across as yearning; if anything, he sounds like someone examining emotions from a long distance, seeing everything clearly and yet only clinically attached. When he sounds most involved, it’s often through the most grotesque of imagery,such as in “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” with its sudden ejaculation of “I’ve severed my shrieking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face.”
That’s not to say that it’s a horror album. In fact, Walker is darkly funny as often as he is terrifying on Bish Bosch, with the aforementioned 21 minute epic containing a multitude of laugh out loud put downs like “If shit were music, la la la/ You’d be a brass band/ Know what/ You should get an agent.” His lyrics most frequently are fragmented, feeling like pieces of larger stories compiled together. They make far more sense when listened to as a collage, drawing in impressions and angles than when looking for direct meaning or some insight into Walker himself. He’s far too guarded for that, and the nine songs on the album, while full of power and intensity, would never be taken for autobiography, or even any human’s biography.
Of course, Bish Bosch is not a spoken word album. The music is challenging, to say the least. At times, it sounds as though Walker is going out of his way to alienate listeners, or at the very least unsettle them. Though he can’t totally remove his gift for melodic delivery from his voice, Bish Bosch does its best to compensate by having the music backing it only gesture in the direction of traditional songwriting. Most of the songs, like “Corps De Blah” and “Tar,” barely hold a melody outside of Walker’s voice, instead carrying the momentum of the song through erratic instrumentation. A single track can veer from sudden bursts of synthesizer and guitar to explosions of less identifiable noise to long gaps of silence. “Tar” is a telling example, with the most consistent rhythm element being the literal sound of a blade being sharpened, but it hints tantalizingly at melodies that never quite come together. It’s the musical equivalent of a tease, yet it never feels playful. Instead it feels like a test of listeners’ ability to listen. And if nothing else, Walker has to be given credit for successfully turning the sound of possibly simulated flatulence into literal music. That’s taking scatological to a new height.
For all of its abrasiveness (and often because of it), Bish Bosch is a fascinating listen. While it doesn’t have a track with the strength of “Farmer in the City,” it’s an intense, disturbing album that demands attention. It’s not the kind of music that can be played in the background, even by oneself. It draws in, it absorbs, even while it repels and at times disgusts. Walker’s albums haven’t been pop music for years now and shouldn’t be expected to be. They’re more like the musical equivalent of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film: inventive, brilliant and difficult to understand on a conscious level. But if you can gain enough distance from the music while still being immersed in it, like Walker himself often seems to, there’s whole strange worlds there.