Having just written a review of the latest Xiu Xiu record (“Always,” Polyvinyl, 2012), I felt the need to finish something inside myself, where that record took me, so I decided that as long as I was in the neighborhood of the “difficult,” I’d take on the latest record from Scott Walker, “Bish Bosch.” To even attempt such a thing in writing is scary. It feels like trying to review The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, to cite an equally complex book and difficult author, knowing there are people in the world who devote their entire careers and websites to Wallace’s work. The serious, the humorous, the vulgar, and the ironic blend together in the hands of these kinds of critical masters who establish unique places for themselves in culture.
Since I’m in the mood to confess, I’m tempted. I want to be able to see into these nine songs and pull out of them some sort of central meaning within each as a kind of ultimate clarity for myself about Scott Walker’s work, and this conclusion of an important trilogy. (But I’m not that good.) Some artists take a long time to be understood, revealing themselves only after time and careful thought. Some avant-garde artists require the development of whole theories, to be used like travel guides, just to get inside the fragments (ruins?) of their work.
That said, I still have the obvious in front of me in this beautifully packaged double LP: Scott Walker makes records for people to listen to. He wants us to listen to his music. He wants us to think about his lyrics, written in mostly clear language. He must also want us to react to and feel something while we’re listening to his record. He could make it easier for us, but he doesn’t. So I also have the parallel suspicion that confusion (disorientation?) is also part of Walker’s objective.
In listening to “Bish Bosch,” even after several times, I’m stuck with the impression (unsubstantiated) that this record is an avant-garde nightmare opera, at turns both modern (in language) and ancient (in references), built to function at the most extreme edge of modern music, with vulgarity, bodily functions, cruelty, and blood enough to entertain an ancient Roman, an invading barbarian, or a contemporary student of high art. Decay and darkness follow Walker’s songs. Each track is built around Walker’s haunting baritone voice, the one unifying element across his entire catalog. His voice is the best guide through these new songs, that and having his lyrics handy to read along as he sings.
If there is humor here (most reviewers think there is), it’s stylized and intellectual. As in the song “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter)” with the lines: “If shit were music,/you’d be a brass band,” or “You should get an agent,/why sit in the dark/handling yourself.” Flagpole sitter as ascetic? Flagpole sitter as stuntman? Flagpole sitter as musician? Or in the song “Corps De Blah,” with its artful and realistic fart sounds (samples?). (How did he record those fart sounds anyway? Is that part of the joke? Are we meant to visualize the “capture”?) Textures and bodily functions and wordplay jostle with fleeting fragments of melody, guitars, drums and all manner of percussion, dark synth sounds, and what I take to be sharp hammer noises in the night (dark night of the soul?), all disturbing, discordant, disorienting, and distancing. Are farts musical? I’ve not thought about farts as music before. Are they intended to be “funny”? Or just jarring in their overly specific ability to project a specific mental image. Ultimately, the nine songs on this record present such a difficult surface that I feel pushed back to the idea of avant-garde opera. Or maybe even spoken word with lyrics functioning more as poetry, ornamented and pushed along by the loose musical structure around them.
John Cage spoke and wrote about his approach to music as a kind of invention, using experimentation to explore and prove (disprove?) intellectual assumptions about human-defined rules and the physics of music (is silence acoustic, for example). In this area, music becomes a kind of pure mental exercise or science. Performance becomes a laboratory. Or a kind of meditation, perhaps, designed to strip away comfortable (immature?) musical forms in order to leave listeners grasping to find new meaning, the starting point for spiritual wisdom. Performance as monastery or temple practice. To not understand is the beginning of the path toward understanding.
In the end, “Bish Bosch” leaves me feeling defeated, like a man standing at the base of Mount Everest having lived his whole life in Kansas. All that I had imaged what the highest mountain in the world should be, withers when in the presence of the mountain itself. It’s knowledge that blocks further questions. This isn’t a fun record to listen to, so keeping it in my play rotation isn’t likely. I want to “see” this record performed, like opera or Shakespeare, because I allow myself to hope that viewing a live performance might provide me with access to more levels of meaning. I want to watch the performers using their bodies, their faces, to convey a more subtle interpretation of the words they’re speaking or singing and the music they’re playing. (Check out the film “30 Century Man” and you’ll very quickly access greater understanding about Walker’s music by watching him make it.)
“No more/dragging this wormy anus/round on shag piles from/Persia to Thrace,” a few lines from the song “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter).” Then from Attila the Hun (barbarian, d. 453) to Louis B. Mayer (film producer, d. 1957), in this one song. The image is still ugly.
Scott Walker’s work seems to be getting grittier and crueler. The trilogy, “Bish Bosch,” along with “Tilt” (1995) and “The Drift” (2006), presents the ultimate Walker mystery in a career that began with pop (all ages welcome), then moved through profound searching and extreme experimentation (graduate students and theorists only). Walker now stands alone as a visionary defining his time. He’s had at least two full careers as a musician, and they couldn’t be farther apart from each other.
Some artists are difficult. Some artists reveal themselves over time. Some never do. The funny thing is, for all of my lack of understanding about the many levels of meaning “Bish Bosch” attempts to convey, in spite of my resistance to some of the imagery in these lyrics, I still love this record and this trilogy, and I greatly admire the risks Walker has taken. You just can’t walk away from Scott Walker, and that’s pure alchemy if there ever was any. He makes things difficult for us and we stay with him. We keep trying. I’ll keep listening this this record and, maybe in a year or so, I can revisit the entire trilogy again and perhaps understand more of what’s going on. I’ll let you know what I discover.
Scott Walker remains important like John Cage remains important. The world is an ugly place, a complicated place that extends into the dark spaces inside our own minds. Some artists work with that space. Some avoid it entirely. Scott Walker is a practitioner of mystery. And not every mystery can be explained.