The Drift still stands as one of the bleakest and most despairing releases of the Bush era.
After yet another massive gap between releases, Scott Walker belatedly entered the 21st century with The Drift, an album suffused with such angst that it still stands as one of the bleakest and most despairing releases of the Bush era. Compared to Rock the Vote-esque pleas for social engagement that marked many contemporary artists’s records during the first half of the decade, Walker’s first all-new LP since 1995’s The Tilt is suffused with defeated nihilism, mingling horrors personal and political into a miasma of terror. Walker always plumbed the macabre for inspiration, but The Drift is perhaps the clearest insight into just how deep the artist would sink for inspiration.
Opener “Cossacks Are” casts a wide net to capture this overwhelming malaise, playing like a collection of news clips of various forms of decay. Walker’s lyrics consist of quotations from everything from reviews of erotica (“A chilling exploration of erotic consumption“) to a statement by the prosecutor of Slobodan Milošević’s war crimes trial (“Medieval savagery, calculated cruelty“) that combine to form a fragmented portrait of total chaos. Glowing eulogies for John Paul II rub elbows with George Bush’s asinine compliment of then-French president Jacques Chirac to deepen the disgust, presenting farcically empty flattery of public figures as a reminder that no one is coming to save us, the proles, from doom. Underneath this apocalyptic cut-up imagery is a riff that splinters like ice cracking underfoot as a backbeat stumbles like a wounded animal. Arguably the most polished statement of intent in Walker’s discography since “The Electrician,” “Cossacks Are” is the perfect introduction to the album’s hellscape.
The subject matter only gets more harrowing from there, at once more explicit in references to historical horrors and more abstract as Walker uses them as jumping off points for free-associative reveries. “Buzzers,” for example, invokes the Srebrenica massacre of the Balkan Wars, once again referencing Milošević, only for the second verse to completely spiral off into an account of the evolution of horses, their snouts lengthening over millennia. The two threads do not intersect, leaving the listener to invent connections between them, such as the possibility of genetic evolution as a metaphor for the slow codification of racist beliefs that can inspire ethnic cleansing. “Clara,” named after Mussolini’s mistress, Clara Petacci, who found herself strung up next to her paramour, starts with the imagery of hanging bodies, pointedly linking the hanging of the dictator and his mistress to the practice of lynching in America. Walker spares a measure of pity for Petacci in spite of her steadfast devotion to Mussolini, comparing her to a swallow who flew into a house and became trapped, but the quiet reflection explodes in sounds of war and death, with the damp thwack of the percussion achieved by striking the carcass of a pig. Even when softening his viewpoint, Walker finds ways to reinforce the album’s nightmarish vision.
The instrumentation throughout consistently finds strange methods to communicate dread and queasiness. “Jolson and Jones,” with references to the nerve-deadening poison curare and blackface performer Al Jolson, is sluggish until it suddenly erupts into a donkey bray timed with a free jazz shriek of a saxophone, doubling the intensity of the outburst into dissonant terror. A saxophone also rips through “Hand Me Ups” in bleary groans that sidewind through industrial percussion, and distended brass interjections crop up on occasion. Walker nominally continues to employ the same baroque instrumentation that was used on his early pop records, but here they have been stretched and bent, layered under unorthodox, rhythmically suspect percussion to emphasize their dissonant nature. On “Psoriatic,” digital jitters overwhelm the soundscape in trilling repetitions before the sound of scraping on wood, like a body being dragged on a floor, provides a grounding element.
If Tilt indicated just how radically Walker had grown as an artist from his earlier beginnings, The Drift marked the full blossoming of his late style as one of pop’s all-time mavericks. Its abstract and circumspect lyrical content ironically helped the album age better as a document of Bush-era rage than most direct political addresses. Consider how “Jesse” filters the horror of 9/11 through the tortured metaphor of Elvis Presley’s twin, who died in the womb. Walker emphasizes the pain of absence, of feeling the phantom pain of something that should be there, but isn’t. Just as the artist addresses the anger of the Iraq War through strange reference points, so too does he use this prism to approach the anguish of the 9/11 attacks without lapsing into treacle. Walker existed well outside any prevailing pop trends by this stage of his career, yet The Drift, his only proper album of the 2000s, confirmed him as one of the most relevant and probing artists of the time.