Scott Walker Bish Bosch(4AD) Buy it from Insound
Scott Walker is the man who went from performing richly baroque pop to creating records based around samples of pig carcass-boxing, there’s nothing he could do to surprise or shock us anymore… Or perhaps not, as not only does Bish Bosch come a mere six years after his last album proper, The Drift, a relatively short gap by his recent standards (made even shorter if 2007’s contemporary dance score And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball? is also considered), but the name perhaps suggests that the album might be an unusually light-hearted romp; an ode to the Jamie Oliver ‘chuck everything into the pan, bish bash bosh’ school of cookery perhaps?*
No need to worry though as it turns out there’s a more serious, artistically credible reasoning behind that title, hinting at street slang and Hieronymus Bosch, and despite the odd burst of humour – the fart noises of Corps De Blah are particularly unexpected, and not entirely welcome - the album’s contents are as dark and generally inscrutable as you’d come to expect from following Walker’s recent career. The instrumentation might seem relatively sensible – the closest you’ll find to butchery here is the incessant menacing scrape of machetes in Tar – but Walker’s tenor in a wind-tunnel croon is still the loneliest sound imaginable, and the lyrics are just as obtuse yet death and decay-driven as ever. As with the work of any artist of advanced years (Walker’s currently 69, although the consensus seems to be that he neither looks nor acts it), it’s tempting to claim that the work is a meditation on mortality, despite the fact that the album’s accompanying notes stress the importance of not treating the work as autobiographical.
And yet, such facile conclusions are practically necessary in order to initially navigate the record’s 73 oddball minutes, such is the slipperiness of its contents. Attempting to work through the lyrics, which in print look more like poetry or Beckett-esque minimalist drama, often feels like deciphering code, and can be something of a maddening experience – album centrepiece (if only due to its 21 minute running time) SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)’s central comic juxtaposition would be completely ungraspable if footnotes hadn’t been included in the lyric book, and, to be honest, the idea doesn’t seem that funny even when you know what it is.
It’s quite possible that a fair amount of Bish Bosch is outright nonsense, and that given Walker’s reputation, there is an urge to seek wisdom that may not actually be there, and while it can be difficult to admit defeat in interpreting such a work, it ultimately doesn’t matter as pleasure can, and indeed is meant to, be found in the fragments. In fact that in itself might be the point; Walker grew tired with conventional easy beauty a long time ago and has been attempting to deconstruct it ever since. Hence the album’s frequently marrying lush Hollywood strings with abruptly lurching song structures, or incongruous lyrics and music. Opener “See You Don’t Bump His Head” takes a moment of mourning from the screenplay of From Here To Eternity and renders it a pounding electronic nightmare (abrasive as it is, it’s probably the album’s strongest point, thanks to its tight focus); Phrasing has him recite the line ‘pain is not alone’ over and over while his backing musicians slip from stadium rock drum solos to full-out samba; while sections of …Zercon… might have been written specifically for the very small minority who felt that what Penderecki’s Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima was missing was a load of catty insults (although Walker does have a flair for a witty put-down – ‘If shit were music you’d be a brass band’ is almost as good as anything Death Grips came up with in Hacker, this year’s high watermark of cryptic musical dissing).
All of which, again, isn’t something that someone who had been following Walker’s career wouldn’t expect, but Bish Bosch is a wilder, more scattered (and scatty, in the case of Epizootics!, ten minutes of sax-driven jazz which could almost be seen as accessible, if it wasn’t so dark and threatening) work than its immediate predecessors, featuring neither the extraordinary beauty of Tilt, nor the cold rigour of The Drift; an album that although perhaps more difficult, was more easily comprehensible. Much of Bish Bosch's lyrical content and themes seems to be suggested by connections and ideas so idiosyncratic that they can be a bit hard to swallow. But then, such is the danger of discussing the work of a mind that works in a genuinely unique way (not to bring up the rather overused term genius, but....)
Harder to dismiss are the concerns that, for all Walker’s madcap invention, there’s too much familiarity in Bish Bosch’s contents, both in the sense that its tracks can on occasion seem a little interchangeable (which to be fair is hardly surprising considering their length and segmented structures) and that they reflect what’s come before – not just the contents of Walker's own back catalogue, but the work of others – Dimple is a dead ringer for Throbbing Gristle’s Hamburger Lady, although the decision to convey much of its isolated drama in Danish makes it a thankfully easier listen, if at first a borderline silly one.
Not for any moment should it be considered that Bish Bosch is a conservative work, by general standards it’s still way out there, it’s just that it could be said that, by evoking past works, even unintentionally (the reappropriation of Jingle Bells as a funeral march in The Day The Conducator Died, inspired by – but not a direct account of - Ceausescu’s Christmas day execution, is a different matter, and disproves the assumption that sticking sleigh bells on a song will instantly make it festive) is rather going against the spirit of the ‘avant-garde’ and suggests that Walker may now need to consider a new approach. Although with he himself mentioning that he sees the work as a final part of a trilogy, perhaps this is a case of admitting that he’s gone as far as he can in deconstruction. Hopefully we’ll soon get to hear whatever it is that he decides to rebuild from the wreckage.
*Actually, with the closest thing to cooking instruction in the lyrics being Pilgrim’s ‘Blowing up bullfrogs with a straw’ it might be fairer to say that his celebrity chef of choice is Heston Blumenthal.