Footnotes are useful, and yet, possibly because they are relegated to the bottom of the page, often overlooked – or at least under-appreciated. This is a shame because much can be gleaned from them in order to increase our understanding of the text in question. A close relative is the hand-written note in the margin, although its presence is solely down to a previous reader, rather than carrying any authorial or editorial voice. I inherited a copy of poetry by T.S. Eliot which is full of official footnotes, and pencil scribblings of my father’s translations of the Greek quotations and whatnot. They are equally useful in trying to unpack T.S.’s meaning.
It’s possible that in a few years copies of the lyrics of Scott Walker‘s Bish Bosch will be handed around covered in lightly pencilled markings as well, to go alongside Walker’s own handy explanations of his words. Well, some of his words. For the most part they are obtuse and fractured, spread out across the lyric book like an e.e. cummings poem and using the most alliteration I’ve seen outside a James Ellroy novel. Walker starts with the words and builds the melody around them, but he can be, at times, impenetrable and it is tempting to enjoy just the shape of the phrases he sings rather than deciphering any meaning. The lengthy “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” has probably the longest set of notes for a lyric I’ve ever seen, covering everything from Attila the Hun to Louis B. Mayer and certainly clarifies things a bit. But not enough to penetrate the mystery: ‘Grostulating-Gorbi requires fresh packing’, for example, is a phrase that retains its secrets. But perhaps a song that takes us from soothsaying to the discovery of a cold star via some fairly coarse imagery and a bunch of yo’ mama jokes doesn’t really need the listener to sit there and try to join the dots, and rather – at least for now – just enjoy the ride.
As might be expected from a writer of Walker’s intensity, there is enough thought and craft behind both music and lyrics to make in-depth study of it worthwhile, but not to the extent that one stops enjoying the experience of listening. The whispered ‘Pow-pow’s on The Drift‘s “Jesse” can be unpacked numerous ways – and a couple of extra ones have been revealed by Scott recently – but it’s a gradual discovery that takes place over time, rather like watching a movie on several occasions and picking out different themes and characters each time – or, if you’re feeling ambitious, attempting to ‘read’ the whole film as a text. It’s no coincidence that Scott is a avid film buff, given the amount of cinematic imagery that filters through his work – most obviously, “The Seventh Seal” from Scott 4, but also the Pasolini-referencing ‘Paolo, take me with you’ line from Tilt‘s “Farmer In The City” – and it’s an interest that is present in the bracing opening track of Bish Bosch, “’See That You Don’t Bump His Head’”, which rests on a quote cut from the movie From Here To Eternity.
We’ll come back to the lyrics later, for A Closer Listen is really about the music and for all the inspection of the words, it’s what Bish Bosch sounds like that will be the clincher. Those of you who have been at least moderately aware of Walker in the past decade or so will know that one of the more arresting music-making images of recent memory is that of percussionist Alasdair Malloy punching a side of meat in order to get that certain sound that Scott was after – the other image being of Scott’s baseball cap shading his eyes to avoid unnecessary contact. The promotional video for the album (at the bottom of the page) doesn’t quite match that for an image but does have men blowing into long ripply horns, marbles in a dustbin lid and various effect boxes. Oh, and machetes. Mustn’t forget the machetes. Perhaps a go-getting young band out there will seize the initiative and hack up a dead pig with a sword for their next album.
Much of this is what Scott calls ‘dressing the songs’ (a phrase he attributes to Jarvis Cocker), which means, in effect, adding little bits of sound where the lyrics demand it, rather than keeping a consistent musical accompaniment throughout which is what most songwriters stick with. It’s a bold concept, and one can understand why many musicians don’t follow that approach because it effectively means operating with fewer hooks for the listener and relying on the vocals to carry the song; effectively, the audience is being asked to do a bit of work, rather than just sit there and experience it, which is generally why avant-garde music hasn’t tapped into the mainstream in the way contemporary art has. You can look at a piece of modern art for a few minutes at most in a gallery and then move on to the next, whereas you have to sit down and engage with the music, when most people listen to music to soothe, rather than challenge. In addition to the arrangements, Walker has changed his singing technique for his last three albums, seeking to escape the expectations that his velvety croon carries with it in favour for moving up the scale. The contrast at first was stark, particularly for those who went straight from the heroic introspection of Scott 2 into Tilt (much like spending the night carousing on tables in all the bars around town, then spending the next day shivering through the come-down in the corner of a darkened room).
The vocal melodies are linear, more often than not, with Scott moving from idea to idea rather than hanging around repeating phrases – one exception being the opener with its repeated ‘While plucking feathers from a swan song’, which is about as immediate and accessible as the songs get, although the line ‘shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines’ is not the only thing keeping from Top 40 radio play. If there’s one recurrent theme with Walker’s last three albums, it’s that he opens with the song that’s easiest to cope with for the newcomer, and things get a bit more tangential from thereon in until he closes with a stark solo piece.
So it’s not unexpected that second track “Corps de Blah” is much more representative of Bish Bosch as a whole, with all manner of odd sounds being thrown into the mix to embellish Walker’s vocal, from the tap-tap-tap for the ‘Chiseller’ section and the chorus of artificial insect chatter to accompany ‘Like flies sip at wide eyes’, or the twisted harpischord for ‘Eukaryotic gobbler of gavotte’. These are not particularly long sections either, and there is a section with an almost post-rock dynamic with drums and violins drawing out the tension. But “Corps de Blah” also has the juvenile yet humorous farting horns backing Scott as he sings ‘Ah, my old Scabby Sachem, a sphincters tooting our tune’. Which brings us to a key theme of Scott’s – now in his 70s, he is clearly increasingly interested in how his body functions, and possibly how it is now betraying him. So “Dimple” ends with the image ‘In the lowering left-testicle night’, and there’s the ‘Here’s to a lousy life’ code of “Phrasing”, whilst “Pilgrim” tackles vivisection, which becomes a much greyer area when one is taking pills that have been tested in laboratories. It is all a good deal subtler than the ‘it’s too bad he can’t shake hands’ line from Scott 4’s “Hero of the War”, but there is an inescapable feeling of mortality that permeates Bish Bosch.
Lest this all sounds excessively bleak, there are moments which display humour and lightness of touch – this is serious music, after all, but Walker takes pains to throw in the occasional ear-catching lyric as a valve to ease the pressure. Arguably the stand-out track here, “Epizootics!” pauses the music for the line ‘Take that accidentally in the bollocks for a start’, which in modern day parlance is a real WTF moment – and then there’s a Hawaiian coda to top the track off. The powerful trumpet playing of Guy Barker and Tom Rees-Roberts provide a declamatory contrast to Walker’s voice and the combination of jazz and Hawaii somehow works. There should be a host of musicians the world over working out exactly how it does, but I fear there won’t be.
There is a sequence in 30 Century Man, the documentary about Scott Walker, when various musicians are played his songs on a portable turntable. Given that it’s a round of celebrity fans, there’s unanimous adoration for the earlier work, the nascent songwriting and the Jacques Brel covers. But the response to the likes of the artistic breakthrough track “The Electrician” and Tilt is less certain, and that is, in a way, understandable – it’s fairly easy to take the sound of Scott 3 on board in your music-making, as it sticks to traditional song structures and arrangements, even the dissonant strings of “It’s Raining Today”. But as Brian Eno – a man with some idea of influencing a generation of musicians – notes, virtually nobody has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by Walker’s work from the mid-1970s onwards and that is a real shame; as a result even Climate of Hunter sounds ahead of its time which is impressive for an album with both Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler on. So Walker remains in a field of one, unique – and not just because of his journey from 60s popstar to avant-garde artist but because where he leads, few have followed. Possibly only David Sylvian and Mark Hollis have attempted such a journey – and as it’s a path that will upset established fans and find a much smaller potential listenership, it requires both self-belief and a back catalogue that can provide the occasional royalty cheque to keep the wolf from the door.
Bish Bosch ends with both wry humour and the reappearance of one of Walker’s personal fascinations; “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died” concerns itself with the death of Nicolae Ceausescu, the brutal final Communist leader of Romania, and therefore neatly dovetails with The Drift‘s “Clara” which detailed the public lynching of Mussolini and his mistress. Ceausescu was overthrown in the Romanian revolution of 1989, falling from power on December 22nd and being executed on the 25th, with the firing squad not bothering to wait for the command to shoot. The track, with Walker playing all the instruments, is subtitled “An Xmas Song” and ends with a small quote of “Jingle Bells”; underneath Scott’s pulled-down baseball cap, there’s a twinkle in the eye. Bish Bosch is not an easy listen, but nor is it inaccessible, being arguably easier to navigate than The Drift and for the record, I count this as his third masterpiece in a row. Comparisons with the aforementioned Thomas Stearns Eliot are not frivolous; both moved from the US to the UK at similar ages, and have created some of the most ground-breaking work in their respective fields; I’m just not sure what Eliot’s bass-playing was like. But perhaps Bish Bosch can be summed up by some words from Burnt Norton:
… Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
… Words strain,
crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish…