To say that Scott Walker is pushing the boundaries of experimental music is to assume that the reclusive poet and ex-crooner isn’t already in a universe of his own. I don’t know what state of mind Walker was in during the 1960s when he covered pop/rock ballads, but he’s been almost unrecognizably transformed since.
To be sure, the bizarre soundscapes of his latest album Bish Bosch still infuse the shaky baritone vocals of his big-band roots. And yes, the work expands upon the instrumental experiments of predecessor albums The Drift and Tilt. But Bish Bosch goes so much farther. It is unearthly, macabre and chaotic. If in The Drift and Tilt Walker began traveling down the avant-garde rabbit hole, then Bish Bosch is proof that he has finally popped out on the other side.
Just to be clear: I don’t ever recommend following him down that hole. Not that I didn’t love visiting Walker’s surrealist hell; I just won’t be returning for a while. Walker’s twisted visions are far too convincing. Just fifteen continuous minutes in full stereo was enough to make me shiver. Bish Bosch chronicles a disturbed underworld, where demons “[blow] up bullfrogs with a straw” and suffering souls are “drowning yonical tears.” His landscape is especially haunting because he describes atrocities both personal and historical. Walker sings in “Pilgrim?” that such “pain is not alone” and warns that the Klu Klux Klan “sends roses/ from the south.” There’s certainly never a sense of safety in the “protein song howling through the meat,” because the anxious, squeaky static sets the listener on a razor’s edge.
Still, in all its arrhythmic, spine-shuddering bedlam, Walker’s album enthralls. I willfully and enthusiastically journeyed through his night-o-sphere: the diversity and richness of Walker’s darkness makes the trip worth the fear. There’s something exciting in the fact that the poet seems to know five hundred words for purgatory. His album frequently describes unthinkable violence, the kind where “cattle are slaughtered/ entrails examined/ spread across the moon.” At other times, the album is riddled with keen references to historical atrocity such as: “Kruschev’s shoe/ beats a black tattoo.” And at its lyrical peak, Walker takes straightforward happy images and makes them macabre; he howls that “a cobweb melts/ inside a womb” or that “sh*t might pretzel/ Christ’s intestines.”
Walker’s work has never been so grotesque—and it makes me ponder his emotional stability—but his grisly imagery never comes across as self-derived. His draws from the work of an artist named Hieronymus Bosch, for whom the artist named the latter half of the album title. Bosch, the 15th-century Dutch painter, is notable for his fantastical renderings of half-human, half-demon creatures. The album could serve as a soundtrack to Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s famous triptych depicts two panels of Eden—before and during original sin—but it is most notable for the third panel’s representation of punishment in hell. Supposedly, the giant, cavernous “Tree-Man” is a representation of the anti-Christ. Walker’s album presents only the third panel. Between Bish Bosch and The Garden, I’m not sure which work I should blame for my nightmares.
One element of Bish Bosch that’s especially easy to overlook is Walker’s black humor. The album title is slang for “bitch,” meant, if you trust Urban Dictionary, as a light-hearted term of endearment. Scott’s echoey wail, usually a vehicle for lament, often disguises the humor of his lyrics. At the start of the 21-minute long “SDSS1416+13B (ZERCON, A FLAGPOLE SITTER),” Scott’s over-the-top vibrato seems self-parodic; narrating what seems to be a heated argument with a sex-worker, Walker inserts a childish retort: “If sh*t were music/ la la la/ you’d be a brass band.” Touché.
If Walker’s comedy isn’t overt in his lyrics, the pitch-modulated fart sounds of “A Corps de Blah” speak for themselves. I’m still confused as to why the fart sounds are included, even though Walker explains that these are “sphincters tooting our song.” The lyrical lead-up to this peculiar arrangement is only marginally more illuminating. The song might be discussing a post-nuclear earth—“hence cracked/ an atom age old egg/ ... / the sky clads ash”—and maybe some sort of radiation has induced the “goitres” Walker speaks of. Could the farts, then, be the choked, “macaronic” language of irradiated victims? I honestly have no idea.
Walker deserves to be respectfully spoofed. His dense verse is lost on the average listener (myself included) because it follows only dream logic. Moreover, Bish Bosch’s poetic impenetrability may be more humorous than Walker bargained for.
So, here we go: If you have no idea what Walker’s voice sounds like, try this simple exercise. First, sing a line of the slowest Elvis tune. Now, imitate a paranoid ghost. Then take the nearest two metal objects and whack them together. Put it all together. You’ve just parodied Scott Walker.