It’s all in the name: “Soused.” Plunged. Immersed. Soaked, in thunder and dark images. Obsessions and digressions, twisting themselves into knots. Two great musical rivers—Scott Walker and Sunn O)))—finally made one dark record together. Don’t think you’ll have an easy listen with “Soused” (4AD, 2014). This one is difficult.
Just when you thought your exploration of their music couldn’t get more daunting, you’re faced with the sheer power of Sunn O)))’s guitars, which on their own produce enough emotion to overpower even the most compelling lyrics. And while Scott Walker has been drifting for years toward a more operatic vocal approach, allowing for periods of calm better suited to soft orchestral landscapes, he still needs his gothic baritone voice to dominate here, adding his distinctive overtones to every song.
And yet, as the ultimate super group of darkness, Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley found a way to balance their egos and desires to make a meaningful, if one-time, statement together. I like what they’ve done with the place, but a huge question lingers: Just how many times will I want to listen to this record?
The music press is understandably beside itself over “Soused.” Why did this happen? Why did it take so long to happen? Is there any way to confirm how this record came to be made, or who approached whom? Is there any point in speculating? Maybe a better question would be: Is this a meeting of equals? Both Scott Walker and Sunn O))) are journeymen artists, though not of the same generation. Both have succeeded in carving out distinctive experimental music spaces for themselves. Both share a lean aesthetic. The best Sunn O))) records (and tracks) have minimal or no lyrics, with guitars alone carrying the full weight of their intended expression. Their treatments play tricks on the mind. For example, it’s easy to think of ØØ Void (2000) as having lyrics, or “Monoliths & Dimensions” (2009) as being a seamless blending of their version of traditional religious/archaic/choral/chant music sung by metal monks, who happen to play extremely loud guitars when they pray. Scott Walker has been building ensemble bands for years to create difficult-to-define soundscapes for each of his records. His voice, his lyrics, which swing between avant-garde poetry and traditional song lyrics, drive the direction and texture of each record. They speak: Sunn O))) with guitars, Scott Walker with voice and poetry.
Ours being an age of extremes in art, a golden age of violence porn in film and in music, means the sadomasochistic and violent (self-harming?) undertones of “Soused” (how many people write songs inspired by the legend of Herod the Great and hiding their babies?) must certainly be exciting to many. Lines like “A beating would do me a world of good” (from the opening song, “Brando”), or “Red, blade points knife the air./All night he sees it constellating his thought….” (from the song, “Fetish”), cut two ways, both obsessional and disturbed (serial killer?), as well as guilt-driven puritanical (sinner?). Just how deeply you want to allow these images in is the question. For the artist, creation is an imperative, regardless of where it springs from or where it leads. For a listener, it’s about choice—do we want to go there, too, when we don’t have to?
Years ago Scott Walker said in an interview that he doesn’t write songs for pleasure, and none of the songs on “Soused” could be accused of cheer. Which makes this a heavy record celebrating dark human impulses and desires. It’s a meditation on being plunged into psychological spaces some might find too challenging to visit. I suppose it’s a bit like the brief but elemental poetic enigma first expressed by the Roman poet Catullus: “I hate and I love. Why? I do not know.”
In art, sometimes we get just the questions. This meeting of two rivers is now complete. What they’ve left behind is a dark puzzle that will grow only more complex. Art fuels art. A record from Scott Walker and Sunn O))) was probably inevitable, given their shared affinities. Speaking as a fan, I’m glad to have witnessed this meeting of minds, of rivers, but I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to listen to some of these songs. Some records are simply difficult.