The voice – full, fruity and operatic – repeats a four-note motif over and over, accompanied by what sounds like a malfunctioning drum machine stuck on a particularly jarring digital tone. The lyrics reference Puccini’s Tosca and bdelloid rotifers (freshwater asexual invertebrates), and are interspersed with a recurring refrain about “plucking feathers from a swansong”. Scott Walker’s new album, Bish Bosch, has just begun, and it does not get any easier over the 75 minutes that follow.
The American-born, British-based Walker is not alone in the category broadly known as art music. What is hard to reconcile is he was once the epitome of pop: as the voice and face of the Walker Brothers, he stormed mid-60s radio with a series of big production ballads that sat somewhere between Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector. Hits like The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More and Make It Easy On Yourself remain staples of oldies radio.
A series of solo albums followed, through which one can trace a gradual expansion of ideas and ambitions. It starts with his discovery of Jacques Brel and moves into increasingly arty original material. Although the 70s saw a brief backslide into easy listening, by the time he released the Climate of Hunter album in 1984 it was clear he was headed somewhere so far beyond the bounds of pop that there would be no return.
Bish Bosch is only the third album Walker has made in 17 years, and it is hardly surprising his releases are scarce. Record labels are not exactly clamouring to fund such niche projects.
What’s more, Walker’s style of composition is clearly the product of years of toil. Every abrasive beat, searing synthesiser or brutal guitar chord – not to mention the occasional tooted ram’s horn, percussively scraped machete or blast of a full symphony orchestra – is meticulously placed.
Decoding the lyrics could have you scrambling for a dozen different encyclopedias. If Walker uses the term bish bosh – slang for incomplete or non-committal – with deliberate irony, his spelling of bosch, as in Hieronymous Bosch, is equally pointed. The world he paints in sound and words is as detailed and terrifying as the Renaissance painter’s depictions of Hell.
Walker has a particular obsession with dictators. There are footnotes in the lyrics booklet in which he explains references to Nicolae Ceaușescu and Attila the Hun. Meanwhile, his jolting musical collages, in which the dramatic silences only increase the feeling of dread, create the uneasy sensation of being in a war zone. But if the overall mood is nightmarish, it is not without moments of droll humour. There are fart jokes and other references to bodily functions amongst the classical symbolism and quotations from literature and film.
Walker is clearly aware his music is not for everyone. When, in a spoken interlude, he snaps, “What’s the matter? Didn’t you get enough attention at home? If shit were music, you’d be a brass band”, he might be anticipating the words of a baffled reviewer. His voice is still recognisably the same powerful instrument that seemed so comfortable singing Bacharach and Brel in the 60s, and you can still hear how he delights in wrapping it around multiple languages.
But his relationship to melody has changed. To simply sing a song no longer holds any interest for him. He would rather break off fragments of a tune and examine them almost forensically, leaving behind the discarded carcass of whatever song they might once have belonged to. Bish Bosch is not pop. It is an energetic, obsessive, scary and exhausting work of art.
BISH BOSCH, Scott Walker (4AD).