Pola X is a stirring entry in Walker’s discography – a rare display of instrumental compositions that stand on their own, despite the impetus for the work.
There is a choice to be made when reviewing soundtrack work: to watch the film from which it originates, or not. Soundtracks are meant to complement or enhance the images in a movie; this fact suggests that one ought to watch the film in order to fully appreciate its musical accompaniment. However, a good score ought to be able to stand on its own as a worthwhile experience for the listener. In the case of the soundtrack/score for Pola X, this reviewer was far less interested in interacting with the language of the film and so consciously avoided it in order to approach the soundtrack as a work in Scott Walker’s expansive, strange oeuvre.
But even this seemingly straightforward approach has its complexities. Pola X includes more than just Scott Walker’s score for the film. It also includes tracks by Bill Callahan, Sonic Youth, Lebanese singer Fairuz and two short songs that seem to be pulled directly from scenes in the film itself. While Walker’s work up to this point (the soundtrack was released in 1999) was full of his adoration for the movies, including covers of songs from films, a few contributions to soundtracks and more obvious odes like “The Seventh Seal,” Walker had yet to score a film himself before Pola X. This consequential fact makes the soundtrack worthy of consideration on its own.
The film is based on Herman Melville’s novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, a gothic tale of inheritance and incest. My knowledge of the plot of Pola X does not extend beyond this. Of course, such a dark and doomed romance suggests itself as perfectly within Walker’s wheelhouse. This album continues the sound introduced in its full force on Tilt; it opens with a cough and some dialogue from the film, followed by driving percussion and a high wail over which Walker sings for the only time on the record. His voice is swallowed by explosions. “Light” and “Meadow” are surprisingly romantic, sweeping orchestral compositions. “The Darkest Forest” continues the orchestral sound, but to far more foreboding effect. In its opening bars, it uses a dissonant note almost identical to the one Walker used in “The Electrician.” The track then develops a kind of low-end march with a counterpointal spiral of higher strings that hang like a question mark. It is dismal, brooding and ominous.
Later on the album, “Never Again” is all fuzz and noise until it is interrupted by a brief boom-bap sample. The track cycles back and forth between the two like a hellish radio. The soundtrack is littered with diegetic sound – brief snatches of dialogue open or close more than a few of Walker’s own compositions. “Church of the Apostles” is a frenetic, industrial track. It squeals and writhes for nearly six minutes, breaking the album out of a slumber after a string of non-Walker tracks. “Bombupper” is almost entirely diegetic dialogue until a thrumming organ invades for the last thirty seconds or so. “River of Blood” begins with a siren sound of uncertain provenance. Muffled heartbeats and high pitched whines cycle through, leading the listener to question the distinction between score and sound effect. The dissonance gives way beautifully to Sonic Youth’s “Blink.”
When Walker returns to the fore with “Running,” the track mirrors, musically, the motion and of the title, but also seems to sonically depict a chase. Hurried breaths and muffled dialogue fade in and out of the track. It is the culmination of the dark and paranoid mood of Walker’s score. “Closing” and “Isobel” return to more traditional orchestral work, suffused with a dark melancholy.
It is a shame it took so long for Walker to bring his talents to bear on film-score work and that he ultimately did so little of it. The demented, operatic quality of his late work leaves one wondering whether, given more time on this earth, he wouldn’t have eventually made a film himself. But that way madness lies. It is enough to dwell on what he did, as opposed to what he might have done. And what we are left with Pola X is a stirring entry in his discography – a rare display of instrumental compositions that stand on their own, despite the impetus for the work.