The Sound of Confusion
The Oblique, Opaque, Impenetrable, Ridiculous—And Maybe Kinda Brilliant—New Album By Scott Walker
Scott Engel sliced off his surname in 1964 to join a boy band. Four decades later, the now-and-forever Scott Walker has released an opera. Seven years in the making, The Drift (4AD) is an absurdly pretentious album. It has more to do with, say, baroque ironwork or the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini than anything in the rock canon—a regular barrel of monkeys, in other words.
It will spawn no hit single. There will be no tour, no video, no television appearances. Exposure to it will repel the merely curious, and even fans may find themselves respecting more than loving it. Its European excesses stink of clove cigarettes and pungent cheese. It’s hyperbole, or at least pre-emptory, to call it a masterpiece when there’s barely been time to digest it. But it’s certainly . . . something.
Scott Noel Engel was born in 1943 in the tire towns of Ohio and escaped to the sun and sprawl of Los Angeles on the cusp of the ’60s. Once there, the teenage Engel, already singing around town, fell in with a rakish young jazz fan in crisp suits and impossibly black sunglasses name Jack Nitzsche who had transformed himself into a journeyman pop producer with spectacular results. It was Nitzsche who urged Engel, John Maus, and former Standell Gary Leeds to form a pop trio in the mold of the Righteous Brothers.
The newly christened Walker Brothers performed spectacularly gloomy Sunday ballads. Instead of the lippy sneer of Mick Jagger or the ecstatic yelps of the Beatles—despite the requisite bowl cut and natty jacket—Scott Walker’s voice was an ankle-deep baritone croon. The Walkers scored two Top 20 hits in the U.S. in 1965 and promptly vanished. In England, they were a girls-chasing-down-their-limousine, mobbed-in-the-streets smash.
But in 1967 Scott Walker hit the eject button on stardom. He released four solo albums over three years, each more brooding and theatrical than the last—Sinatra lost on the flat field of a Bergman film, but less funny. The sales trajectory of his solo work was a downward spiral. A Walkers reunion fizzled in 1970, and Walker spent the rest of the decade singing endless covers and wearing his hopes for mainstream success like a poorly tailored suit.
Until 1978, that is, when the second act of Scott Walker’s creative life began. Nite Flights appeared to be another quickie Walker Brothers reunion. But if Maus and Leeds were lost in the Valley chasing the Eagles’ audience, Walker was crossing paths with Bowie and Eno on the Potsdamer Platz. “The Electrician” cruised down frozen autobahns of synthesizer, letting the sound of his own wheels drive him crazy. Walker could have been ahead of the coming ’80s synth-pop curve. Instead, he disappeared for six years.
Even more abstract that his Nite Flights songs, 1984’s Climate of Hunter mixed ’80s production values, the avant-garde, and Walker’s ever darkening songwriting. It’s probably the only album in history to feature free-improvising saxophonist Evan Parker and Billy Ocean. No one knew what to do with it, and it remains out of print. Another 11 years passed. Walker was generally assumed to have fallen down a rabbit hole never to return.
And then, in 1995, Walker released Tilt—in America on indie-rock label Drag City. “Melodramatic” seems an inadequate word to describe it. The music is a churning absurdist dirge, a funeral scene scored by Carls Orff and Stalling. It’s the kind of record that’s as confusing on the 100th listen as on the first. But maybe it was the label, or maybe people were just sick of ska, but it was the first of Walker’s mature works that was greeted with praise rather than bafflement—OK, maybe a little bafflement, too.
Walker didn’t fall entirely off the map following Tilt—he wrote a film score, curated a London festival, produced Pulp—but he was hardly a paparazzi magnet either. And now here’s The Drift, an album even more belligerent and ridiculous than Tilt. One response to horror—in this case Sept. 11, the resulting war, and the general sense of despair that followed—is ugliness. Perhaps not the healthiest response, but Walker has chosen his tack. The Drift’s structuring principle is long stretches of inky black space broken up with thunderous discords, a tension that never abates.
Maybe, outside the crucible of the studio, Walker is a sunny guy. But after 40 years of songs that have gone from rainy-day chill to outright bleakness, you have to wonder. Most sad songs are sad over things that can be cured with a hug, a few kind words, or some chocolate. Walker’s songs wrestle with the kind of existential dread that makes the nominally healthy feel helpless around the depressed.
And then he’ll quack “What’s up, Doc?” like a cartoon car alarm. Just what in the hell is going on here? Is his drama-queen routine a gag? (Tilt featured Walker chanting random numbers over the sound of a chain being pulled—geddit?) Because Walker steadfastly refuses to explicate his work, you have to it take it at its word—even when that word is an unintelligible moan of anguish.
Walker’s voice is often the deal breaker. Think of the most mannered rock vocalist you know and multiply it exponentially—Bryan Ferry meets Dame Edna, perhaps? When his voice first enters on The Drift your first instinct may be to giggle. But give yourself up to it—maybe all works the size and weight of The Drift require a certain suspension of disbelief—and you realize there’s no other voice that would work with this ungainly mass of rhythm and noise.
Queasy string glissandi clash with tribal drumming. Strange voices breathe hot in your ear. Donkeys bray and wood is chopped. And then there’s Walker, singing his multicharacter libretto in his strangely fey, strangely deep voice, talking about cocaine-smeared noses and anthrax and death. References to Caligula are clearly meant to draw a line to George W. Bush. Or are they? The lyrics are bursting with metaphor, allusion, and feint. Actually, they’re nearly all feint. Thankfully, somewhere, right now, some nut is busy teasing out all the implications on his blog.
Scott Walker albums require work. In a world where every twentysomething with an iBook is a potential “composer,” maybe Walker dragging a donkey and an ancient tuba and modern classical music and (perhaps) a healthy sense of humor into a studio for seven years means something. Sometimes art that’s unwieldy, epic, baffling—possibly even bullshit—is the only medicine. Sometimes Rascal Flatts just ain’t gonna cut it.
In a world of jobs and soccer practices and jury duty and mortgages and shrinking leisure time, though, you probably don’t have the hours to spare. But the sheer effort involved in The Drift for both creator and listener—Protestant work ethic and all that—is impressive, maybe even worth putting off an hour of Xbox time or a My Name Is Earl twofer. But caveat emptor: Like a lot of other impressive things in this world—Gothic cathedrals, $500 Kobe beef burgers—The Drift is easy to be wowed by but hard to love.
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