It’s been obvious to discerning listeners, from the earliest days of The Walker Brothers, that Scott Walker would ultimately make albums with percussionists playing tympani with cascades of marbles, clashing swords together, and, notoriously on his previous album, pounding their fists on sides of meat. I mean, you could hear this prefigured in the sumptuous arrangement of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” couldn’t you?
Not to be mistaken for the union-busting, anti-education Wisconsin governor, Bish Bosch is the product of the singing Scott Walker, born Noel Scott Engel, who has made a career of making music that confounds expectations and defies easy, or perhaps, any description. Those who have heard nothing by Walker other than his hits with the Brothers will undoubtedly be shocked by the stark, experimental, even hostile sound of his contemporary music, and certainly by Bish Bosch. Going directly from “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” to “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” the new album’s 20-minute epic, is something like transitioning from The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” to Stockhausen’s “Kontakte” (a work that has been characterized by the Sonic Arts Network as “a decomposition of sound” and the “equality of musical sound and noise”).
This Scott Walker was a teen idol, a hit maker both with The Walker Brothers, whose phenomenal U.K. popularity briefly rivaled The Beatles’, and as a solo act who was given his own British variety show, also briefly and to the BBC’s apparent regret. He has avoided live performance since the late ‘70s, and recorded only infrequently over the past three decades.
Bish Bosch seems to complete a trilogy, begun with 1995’s Tilt, wherein Walker has honed a distinctive style of songwriting and (with capable assistance) arrangement that incorporates his long-time fascination with European avant-garde artistic sensibilities in expressing his deeply personal, often disturbing perceptions and ruminations. He sees life through a dark, fatalistic filter, informed by the deeds of the world’s very real monsters and the nightmares they inspire. And he does not see things ending well. His music gives unique voice to his bleak worldview.
In as much as Walker has revealed his songwriting, an arduous process that accounts for the years that elapse between his album releases, beginning with “The Electrician” on The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights album in 1978, he has been gradually paring away verse-chorus pop song structures, traditional melodies, and conventional lyrical narratives. In doing so, he has developed a highly personal style of combining phrases and sounds (and silences) to form an impression on the listener. Walker labors over reducing his lyrics to the words, sounds, and repetitions that convey the feelings, if not the precise meanings he has in mind.
He has said his goal is to bring all the songs’ elements into balance, careful to never “throw anything in that shouldn’t be there.” It is an approach more like abstract poetry than traditional songwriting. And accordingly, personal interpretation is (as Walker has indicated) as essential to the listening experience as is authorial intent.
Walker often deliberately limits the melody lines of his songs to accentuate the droning sense of doom that pervades his contemporary music. With an instrument as great as his rich baritone voice at his disposal, it may seem downright perverse to disdain the sweeping, soaring melodies that made his early solo hits so irresistible. Brian Gascoigne, an arranger on two of Walker’s earlier albums, believes the singer to be seeking “the boundary between chords and discords,” and the harsh clusters of notes used to construct his songs evidence this ongoing quest. Walker’s goal often seems to be to challenge the listener to endure an uninviting sonic landscape long enough to discern any meaning hidden in an inhospitable setting.
On this album’s “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” Walker has explained, two brown dwarves—Attila the Hun’s court jester and the celestial body of the title—signify the urge to escape one’s situation, an aspiration as futile and pointless as the flagpole sitting craze of the 1930s, and one that, he says, “as with the majority of my songs, ends in failure.” Much of the song’s context is spelled out in the lyric booklet that accompanies Bish Bosch, without which even Wikipedia (and several close listenings) might not be sufficient to glean Walker’s concept for the piece.
The title, “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head,’” likewise, is explained in the booklet as a line of dialog cut from the film, From Here To Eternity. Familiarity with the film’s deleted scenes may enhance the song’s meaning, but the repeated, pivotal phrase, “While plucking feathers from a swan song,” alongside mention of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unmanly dribble,” is sufficient to convey a mood of failure. In other Bish Bosch songs, body horror—the flayed Arab widows and brain removal of “Corps De Blah,” blowing up bullfrogs with straws in “Pilgrim,” “skull goblets,” dried and dangling eyeballs and, most notably, “severed…reeked gonads” fed to a “shrunken face” in “…Zercon”—conjures up a pervasive air of brutality and defeat.
So many of Walker’s soundscapes are so utterly alien, the occasional electric guitar riff or clearly demarcated stretch of 4/4 time, played on a conventional drum kit, is itself disorienting, a familiar sound made sinister by its ominous surroundings. At his most accessible, such as in parts of the nearly playful “Epizootics!” (which takes its title from 1940s hipster slang) or the majority of “Phrasing,” the sound is not so distant from the more experimental music of commercial artists, such as Peter Gabriel’s “The Rhythm of the Heat” or David Bowie’s Low album (a work clearly indebted to Walker’s “The Electrician”). These moments seem to exist on Scott Walker albums, however, only to demonstrate how far removed the rest of his music is from that of his contemporaries, especially those he’s influenced.
No more than a director makes a difficult film thinking it is unwatchable, Walker clearly doesn’t make albums that he considers unlistenable, as challenging as they may be. As disjointed and unpleasant as the images may be, like Bunuel and Dali’s famous eyeball slicing in Un Chien Andalou, each of them on Bish Bosch is important to the impression Scott Walker is trying to convey to any listener willing to invest the effort at interpretation. Of course, given Walker’s love of wordplay, he may just have intended this album’s title as rhyming slang for “pish posh.”