Review Summary: A Ted Chippington-esque album; a kind of humour that challenges you to not find it funny.
Scott Walker has been balls deep in the avant-garde for so long now - for longer than most of the people reading this have even been seriously listening to music, I'd wager - and has given out so little to journalists in that time that it's easy to forget that there's a man behind this music, that somebody's mind is conjuring up these unearthly albums. Even more than that, it's easy to assume that his journey from "Make It Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More" to "Farmer in the City (Remembering Pasolini)" and "Clara" has coincided with a breakdown in his mental state; the mythology surrounding the likes of Syd Barrett and Peter Green has taught us as listeners as much over the years. So it came as something of a surprise to see an interview in The Guardian, published at the end of November, that sees Walker approaching the age of 70 in rude health and rude humour, enjoying jokes with his interviewer, giving warm and face-value responses to the sort of questions that more self-serious artists (particularly those making much less 'serious' music than Walker does) might well have taken offense to. It's as normal a conversation as you'll read, and it shows that Walker is as normal as you could ever realistically expect a famous musician to be - and that in itself is jarring, because his music is anything but
normal, and has been since the mid-'80s.
This might all seem insubstantial, just a minor distraction when it comes to judging Bish Bosch
, but I think it's vital in really coming to grips with a record that can otherwise be bewildering. It's not that it's a weird record, in fact it's the very opposite at times - but it's a new kind of weirdness compared to Tilt
and The Drift
, one that's more direct, heavier, and much, much funnier. I don't say 'funny' as an insult, either; I'm absolutely certain that it's intentional.
I'm sure I must have mentioned this in other reviews, so forgive if I'm repeating myself, but I've always felt that there's an incredibly fine line in-between being avant-garde and being silly, between pushing the boundaries to force them back in the name of artistic freedom and pushing them just because you can. Both are all about provoking reactions, and getting the intended reaction - a laugh, nervousness, confusion, whatever - can be difficult, because there's a certain point when you realize that the highbrow, chin-strokingly experimental work you're listening to is just Judy Dunaway squeaking some latex balloons, or Cathy Berberian shouting out the sound effects from comic strips, or John Cage making you sit in silence for four and a half minutes. Because at heart, those are all inherently funny, aren't they? And for me, the best composers and musicians in the genre (Cage and Berberian included) understand that and exploit it. The avant-garde is littered with tricksters, people who love putting people in a position where they don't know how to react and whether or not to laugh, and with Bish Bosch
, Walker now joins those ranks.
You could start explaining that with the title, really; sure, you could focus on the reference to Hieronymus Bosch, but the reality is that 'bish bosh' is what a British dad says as soon as he's finished a thoroughly mundane yet somehow quintessentially masculine task, like creosoting a fence or unblocking a toilet. It's a title that belongs on a Status Quo album, not a Scott Walker one. But instead, let's start at the record's de facto centerpiece, the 21-minute long "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)", a song that sadly doesn't include the words 'peep show' in reference to Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta", but does include the words 'if *** were music, you'd be a brass band', 'don't go to a mind reader, go to a palmist/I know you've got a palm', 'Norsemen! Do not eat the big pink mint!', 'the Greeks ***ed bears', and 'no more dragging this wormy anus around on shag piles from Persia to Thrace/I've severed my reeking gonads and fed them to your shrunken face'. At one point, he says 'you'll love this one' as he reels off the insults, as if he's invoking the spirit of Groucho Marx. It's a bizarro world song of the year contender, a frightening weird, gloriously stupid, and uncomfortably, relentlessly hilarious powerhouse that could only be the work of a man that's realized how ridiculous it is to ask one of the world's best percussionists to punch a dead pig for a couple of hours (especially when most people still know you for a song like "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)"). He could just as easily be challenging you to herald it as an avant-garde masterpiece as dismiss it as a joke, and that's the beauty of it.
The newfound directness of humour is twinned with a directness of sound, too; more than ever before, Walker has embraced various strains of metal and their satellite genres on Bish Bosch
. The opening track, "See That You Don't Bump His Head", rides a harsh, unrelenting industrial rhythm track that vaguely recalls the likes of Ministry and Fear Factory, and a few honest-to-goodness distorted guitar riffs appear sporadically throughout, reminding me of Kyuss as much as anything. (When they do, it's tempting to recall Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu
and conclude that it was the execution, not the concept, that made it such a failure - what Walker does here at times is not really all that different, it's just much, much better.) Much of "Epizootics" - which both immediately follows and carries on the knowingly dumb humour of "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)" - is more repetitive (in microcosm at least) than anything he's attempted in a while, with a distorted bass ostinato, a tinny brass fanfare, and a relatively simple, skittish drum beat all taking centre stage at times.
Still, those looking for more of the same from his last two albums will find much to satisfy them, on tracks like "Corps de Blah". It almost seems like a shame that Walker is throwing his fans a bone at times here, because it feels antithetical to the point of moments like the end of "The Day the "Conducator" Died"; the bulk of the track may be dry, spooked, and doomy, but it also uses sleigh bells as percussion and concludes with a brief music box rendition of "Jingle Bells" in another 'is he serious?!' moment. That this track ends the album suggests that this is the feeling Walker wants you to take away when you're done with it. Bish Bosch
is as much about challenging the people that absorbed and accepted Tilt
and The Drift
as it is challenging the rest of the world - and while that makes it consistent with all his work since Nite Flights
, each subsequent album giving his fan base another hurdle to overcome, it also gives it a thrill that's unique to both his discography and the majority of the music you could compare it to. If, indeed, there is any.