The cover of Scott Walker’s album The Drift reflects its contents: blood, sprayed, and coagulated, or else a satellite picture of Mars, or both simultaneously. More than anything, The Drift made me think of the Morlocks – those future people from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine who live underground and become distorted. The Drift is the sort of music the Morlocks might make down in their caves, having forgotten the sun and their past and living in fear of the sameness of the future.
Nothing approaching conventional structure is present; textures enter, exit, juxtapose, and transform at Scott Walker’s command. The textures, too, are disturbing: pulsating, ticking, throbbing, and howling. It is sound returned to a primitive form. The vestiges of modernity are present, though distorted. Drums thwack out of rhythm, strings fixate on single pitches separated by semi-tones, guitars grumble low.
Through this maelstrom filter fragments of civilization: a disembodied guitar solo, the inexplicable exclamation, “I’ll punch a donkey on the streets of Galway,” and, very disturbingly, a malevolent Donald Duck. At the climax of “The Escape,” the voice of Donald Duck surfaces and, on the edge of inarticulateness, screaming through static, yells, “What’s up Doc, What’s up Doc.” It took me a long time to realize that anything was being said at all.
Scott Walker is the vocal equivalent of a Theremin, although more expressive. His voice is deep and syrupy. Walker sings in a recitative style. His imagery matches the tone of the music and the music and words amplify one another. All the lyrics work independently of their music as poems, but I am convinced that reading them on the page would not have anything near the effect of listening to them. Walker uses his sounds to separate us from all familiar reference points. Not only is The Drift a world without rationality, it is a world where rationality is hard to conceive of.
This, it’s worth noting, is ‘music of the future’ in the same way that Wagner conceived it: as the uniting of forms. Like Wagner, Walker faces charges of pretentiousness and grandiosity. But I think that to be truly pretentious or grandiose requires condescension. Walker never condescends. There are no witty asides for the bourgeoisie to pick up and feel special about. Rather, everything has a purpose, even if it takes a lot of listening to pick everything up. If our own ironic sensibilities get in the way, that’s our own fault. This album took eleven years to make for a reason.
After the nine movements of The Drift (to call this pop, or really, to give it any genre, is impossible), we find ourselves in “A Lover Loves,” in which Walker’s blocks of sound depart. Only a few repeating guitar notes, along with Walker’s prophetic voice, remain. There should have been a release of tension, a realization that the terrible weight of Walker’s pronouncements was only the result of his sonic landscapes. That’s not the way it felt for me, though. Instead it felt like waking from a terrible dream, only to find myself alone in a dark room. When Walker whispers, “Everything is OK,” it’s hard to believe him.
It’s easier to believe, “A hand that is cold into another colder.”