Hard target

The impenetrable pop of Scott Walker
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  August 9, 2006

CULT OF WALKER: The Drift is difficult — but that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with a genius.
Critic Langdon Winner once wrote that anyone who attempts to listen to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica has two obstacles to overcome: the music and the lyrics. In the case of Scott Walker’s The Drift (4AD), you can add the vocals to that list.

Walker’s sepulchral style of crooning won’t be wholly unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever heard those pop singers who can sound as if they were headlining a tomb. Both David Bowie and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis owe something to Walker’s style of singing. (And Walker, particularly on the 1984 Climate of Hunter, owes a lot to Bryan Ferry.) But Walker’s high, strangled vocals, the way he smears the lyrics into a palette of anguished sludge, can still be offputting. And on top of that, he’s abandoned pop and rock song structure. The music on The Drift is so disorienting that you latch onto snippets — “Oh, it’s an art song. Oh, this is musique concrète” — in order to ground yourself in something — anything — familiar.

There’s another obstacle to enjoying The Drift, or any Scott Walker album: the reviews. If you’ve heard of him but not heard him, and you’re curious and you turn to reviews to get a sense of his music, much of what you’ll encounter could be summed up by the title of a compilation album released in the UK in the ’80s: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. You’ll get a recap of his career: American expatriate in England; enjoyed some hits with the trio the Walker Brothers in the ‘60s; followed their break-up with a quartet of albums of lugubrious crooning influenced by orchestrated MOR pop, Jacques Brel fatalism, and general European gloom; rescued from obscurity by a burgeoning cult following in the ’80s; since 1984, three records at 11-year intervals, each moving closer to his present incarnation, which doesn’t sound remotely like any form of popular music. What critical judgments you’ll find will tell you that the music is difficult but that’s to be expected because you’re dealing with a genius. Not much help to anyone who picks up The Drift, puts it on, and goes “Whaaaaaa?”

So let me try to be as plain as possible: The Drift is an exceedingly difficult album, abrasive and jagged, settling into a murk that’s the sonic equivalent of Anselm Kiefer and then blasting forth with a vocal scream or a jolt of screeching industrial noise that can make you jump out of your skin. A track that includes a credit for “meat punching” has Walker singing some lines in a Donald Duck voice that may be even more terrifying than the donkey braying that interrupts another track. It is, as you’ve probably guessed by now, no goddamn fun.

But it can also be amazing. The closest thing to rock here, the opening track “Cossacks Are,” draws its mocking lyrics from reviews, including reviews of Walker’s own work. Perhaps it’s his signal that what follows is not to be conventionally understood. In “Clara,” the 12-and-a-half-minute Liebestod about the killing of Mussolini and his mistress, Carletta Petacci, the spare imagery achieves a consonance that moves you to a mournfulness you never wanted to feel. “Jesse,” which Walker claims is his 9/11 song, is a soliloquy sung by Elvis to his dead twin, Jesse Garon.

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