Scott Walker is one of those musical iconoclasts who's considered godlike by nerds for rock and pop. Commercial success is irrelevant to his current work, but he has inspired a documentary, the reverence of major critics and hero worship from people such as David Bowie, who years ago teared up when Walker sent him an audio greeting for his 50th birthday. "I see God in the window," he told BBC's Mary Anne Hobbs at the time.
This is in spite of, or because of, the fact that Walker's music is very difficult. In fact, Soused, his new album with drone-metal band Sunn O))) (whose music has always felt to me like a low-grade headache), is being praised as the most accessible thing he's done in years. Playing a Walker record for the first time can feel like listening in on a screaming fight in a language you don't speak – aggression without release. Once you've "cracked" it, misery is your reward, because Walker's art is horrific, not just scary. So why listen? There's no simple answer, besides the fact that it's interesting; Walker requires a little faith.
I'm a huge Scott Walker fan, which gives me conflict from time to time – like it's 2 a.m. on a Sunday, and I'm walking home through the rain to my empty apartment and I really want to listen to Tilt (from 1995's Tilt), but I know I'll end up in a mental loop about how love is illusory and reality is squalor and nothingness. I'm not sure what the song is actually about – I think it has something to do with cowboys – but you could argue that Walker's songs aren't really "about" anything besides those vague but vivid feelings beyond description, triggered by random settings and things. "You just get glimpses of it," he told Rob Young in a 2006 interview, "and so you have to desperately try and give an idea of it, and that's all you can do."
It takes some effort to get a glimpse of Scott Walker, but he does have an on-ramp: his history. In the 1960s, he played the haunted hunk in teen-idol group the Walker Brothers. After the mobs of screaming girls had become frightening, he went solo, recording Jacques Brel songs while developing his own increasingly strange, lush, theatrical tunes. He released four excellent records, but the fourth flopped, and he then descended into drinking and dreck. In the late 1970s, riding out the last of a Walker Brothers reunion with nothing left to lose, he came out with some of the weirdest songs his fans had ever heard.
The first and second halves of his career are symbiotic: His 1960s work can be schmaltzy at times, but the darkness really pops; his later, more opaque records require some trust on the listener's part, but his legend is the hook.
Soused is the fifth major studio album Walker has released since coming into his own. His methods have developed since the 1980s, and it's easier to understand how he works than what he means. From there, you can find your own way into the material.
Walker's songs start with lyrics that can take him years to write. The words determine their form – he sees them as "soldiers in a field," he told Young, and he "hone[s] those babies down," as he once told Jim Irvin, until they evoke the thing he can't say. He writes music to "dress" them, and in that way his songs become their own semantic webs of words and sounds linked by Scott's associations.
Sometimes they make conventional sense, and other times they work by dream logic. The lyrics to Jesse, from 2006's The Drift, for instance, have Elvis Presley addressing his stillborn twin while he watches the Twin Towers fall – the towers are like the dead brother in that they "have no reflective spiritual qualities," as Walker put it to the Independent's Robert Webb. He added: "Memphis is, of course, an ancient Egyptian city, not just Memphis, Tennessee." Do I know what that means? No. But when I hear the song, I get a specific feeling that I could not explain any better.
The associations on Soused are slightly more direct. Brando, its first track, refers to Marlon: "I was watching One Eyed Jacks on television one night," Walker told John Doran for The Quietus. "… I thought to myself, 'Hey, he must have it written into his contract that he has to get beaten up in the films he's in.'" So the music establishes a sense of, as he put it, "masochistic longing" – a chipper guitar lick (a lot like the intro to Sweet Child O' Mine) is hit with a blast of drone and the percussive slap of a bullwhip. As always, it's held together by Walker's voice, which might sound like baritone Gerald Finley's if you heard it from another room.
In interviews, Walker explains his songs sparingly, because it's like describing a dream: the more detailed, the less accurate. If you listen to them long enough, taking his key words as hints, you'll start to get a sense of what they are – and then you'll feel awful, because they really are like nightmares. They work by the same logic and, in the middle of the night, produce the same effects.
Human devastation often provides a subject for Walker – the Eichmann trial, the war crimes of Slobodan Milosevic, fascism, pandemic – but his music is not about these events so much as the fact that they occurred. The songs are not calls to action, and the audience receives no sense that listening is somehow an act of paying respect. Walker's music does the opposite of what we normally want music to do: It reminds us of the worst, and removes the meaning from it. Through a private alchemy, he makes things sound as bad as they are.
So, again: Why listen, and why do the work required to hear? "Masochistic longing" is a good reason. Another is access to the mind of a fascinating person. Beyond that, most of us go about our lives struggling to ignore a low hum of dread. Walker, whose music comes from an inchoate place both deeply personal and collective, amplifies the sound of that dread. There's a certain relief in it.