Is Scott Walker irked by the fact that some people wish to preserve him in aspic as the blond pop idol of the sixties? He was the handsome young man with matinee idol looks and a doom-laden baritone who sang The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and Make it Easy on Yourself with The Walker Brothers. Great songs brilliantly sung by a great-looking trio but that was never going to be enough for Walker. Maybe the clue to his real artistic intent lay in the fact that The Walker Brothers weren’t brothers and that Scott was a committed Anglophile born in Ohio and whose real name is Noel Scott Engel.
It’s a bit like expecting The Beatles to forever rhyme moon with June but nobody can be blamed for keeping Walker fixed in their minds as part of a more innocent time. Most people are unlikely to have heard anything from him since then. His last hit record was in 1974 and ten years after that, his album, Climate of The Hunter, was reportedly the worst-selling album ever on Virgin Records.
Back in the sixties, Walker’s output, to quote Johnny Marr, had a sort of gothic and beautiful gloom and in truth it still does. Bish Bosch is his third album of chilling sonic abstraction in 17 years and he has long departed the tremulous crooning of yore to become an austere modernist composer. Now 69, Walker has been making this kind of challenging and distressing music for nearly 30 years and he is once again voyaging darkly through worlds of dissonance and the avant garde on Bish Bosch.
It sounds a lot like the diary of a madman soundtracked by digital keyboards, abrasive guitars and moments of full-blast operatic drama. The song titles are as inscrutable as the actual songs - opener See You Don’t Bump His Head intros with oppressive industrial drums which immediately sweep you into a world of strife and claustrophobia where Walker barks and shouts lines like “being Christ from the inside out” and “while plucking feathers from a swansong” as shards of guitar rain down around him.
It’s quite a start. On Corps De Blah, vertiginous Bernard Hermann-like strings and swarms of drunken ticks teem across the arrangement but let’s not be too serious or delicate here, the song also features fart noises and ends with the sound of swords been either drawn or sharpened. Phrasing starts astringent and then breaks completely unexpectedly into a samba. The use of silence on Bish Bosch is also astonishing - words are left hanging in the air for long seconds, a relative calm before the onslaught of another barrage of noise and upheaval.
You might call SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) the centrepiece of Bish Bosch although some people night call it the howling vortex of Walker’s nightmarish vision. Inspired apparently by Atilla The Hun, Louis B Mayer, the eighties fad for flagpole sitting and a brown dwarf star, the music is completely immersive as Walker reels off a series of insults and observations: “If shit were music – la dah dah – you’d be a brass band”, “Look, don’t go to a mind reader – go to a palmist I know you’ve got a palm” and “If brains were rain you’d surely be a desert”. Each punchline is followed by the crash of a massive drum instead of the ker-dish of the high hat. Walker recently joked that SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) would be a hit single.
Bish Bosch is for people who may think Beckett and Kafka are just too happy-go-lucky but it’s also packed with laughs. No, really. Listen to the closing track, The Day The “Conducator” Died (An Xmas Song). It’s about Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator who was executed alongside his crackpot wife on Christmas Day 1989. Ho, ho, ho indeed.
Bish Bosch is a singularly physical experience that will leave you reeling but for all that nerve-jangling sound, it is also full of strange beauty and a weird stillness that will engross you.
The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore - by the sound of Bish Bosh it’s gonna implode.