Beware ye who enter: Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch is a record of extravagantly obscure art songs about Moorish dwarf jesters and dwarf stars, Romanian dictators, Hawaiian colonial epidemics, death and farting. They range from gnawingly repetitive to so abstract that they’re like a B-movie slashed up and sutured back together at random.
Bish Bosch is also a gorgeous block of polished obsidian humming in the moonlight. Its nearest cousin might be the darkest films of David Lynch, produced at the highest levels of craft.
In today’s recording industry, it’s hard to grasp how this paradoxical artifact exists. The answer lies in the aura of its nearly septuagenarian creator, Scott Walker.
Suppose the headline on this review read something like, “Justin Bieber screams Japanese poetry over orchestra of car parts and barn animals.” Walker’s is that kind of story, stretched out over four decades.
In the mid-1960s, he was the distinctive lead-baritone crooner in the Walker Brothers, who aroused (mostly in Britain, though they were Americans) the same sort of mass, screaming, stage-rushing teen hysteria as the Beatles did then, and as Bieber does now. But the handsome Scott did not take to idol status. He ran the other way.
The devotee of European art film and chanson turned out a series of solo records that helped introduce the songs of Jacques Brel to the English-speaking world. His own songwriting became an ambitious hybrid of Dylan, Bacharach and Debussy. He would influence Bowie’s style and later much of the New Wave, as well as Pulp, Radiohead, Goldfrapp and others.
First, though, Walker was pushed predictably to the margins. He sank into an alcoholic depression, reducing his output to a string of contractual-obligation albums, with rare flares of inspiration. Nearly two decades passed.
With the attention of his new young acolytes in the 1980s, though, Walker poked his head back out of his cave … not far, but seemingly for good. Since then he’s made about an album a decade – apparently for him a fairly gruelling pace. Bish Bosch is his first since 2006’s The Drift, forming a kind of trilogy with 1995’s Tilt.
Their scale tends to justify the slowness. All three feature theatrical enactments of lateral-thinking, nightmare-logic poetry, with minimalist guitars, found-object percussion and blocks of orchestral sound (Debussy has given way to Alban Berg and Gyorgy Ligeti). Walker self-consciously pushes his voice out of the rich sonorities that made him a star into fragile, discomfiting places, still beautiful but as if on the verge of choking or of tears.
Yet Bish Bosch is a lighter affair than Tilt or The Drift, sparser and less frequently pummelling. The dwarf-jester song may be grotesque, cosmic and 21 minutes long, but it also has a lot of jokes: “Look, don’t go to a mind reader, go to a palmist – I know you’ve got a palm.” Epizootics may contain subthemes of colonial disease and slaughter, but it also breaks out several times into a kind of rumba.
Though a bit more approachable, will Bish Bosch stand up as well as Tilt or The Drift over time? Will the goofy moments detract? Too soon to know. But like the others it comes from a voice not just unique, but uniquely hard-won, and guarded with a fierce fear and joy.
No need to be distracted by Walker’s own fixations. Whatever the songs mean, intellectually, politically or metaphorically, any open ear can immerse itself in their enormous feeling. This is music to be travelled into by layers, in sediments past language, over the years it might take till Walker brings back another, if he ever does. Meanwhile what is here is a precious and unlikely thing.