Lord, what a mess. In a peerless career that now spans seven decades, including shape-shifting turns from ‘50s teen idol to ‘60s singer/songwriter to ‘70s has-been to ‘80s art-rocker, Scott Walker has spent the past 20-odd years mastering a sui generis style of chthonic cabaret, his otherworldly croon soaring over gorgeous orchestration, slaughterhouse dirges and cavernous silence. 1995’s Tilt is the rarest of masterpieces: a landmark that has spawned no imitators. But where 2006’s The Drift found Walker abandoning conventional song structures in crafting a sustained, gripping work of sonic poetry, Bish Bosch pursues that unbound freedom with utter gluttony, a more, more, more of amuck that reaches for the cosmos and—God, it always happens—instead reveals mankind’s spectacular knack for the freefall and faceplant.
Bish Bosch’s thematic thrust rises out of a straightforward progression: Tilt turned on tormented plaints against the indentured servitude of fame—roiling with images of imprisonment and rowing to an overseer’s drum—while The Drift buzzed with decomposition, obsessed with the ignominious ends of larger-than-life figures and the ultimate decay of all flesh. Released from the corporeal, Bish Bosch seeks to tap into a time and space-hopping eternal consciousness, traveling across recorded history and the entire circumference of the globe while orbiting into further and further celestial climes.
Walker’s ambition is admirable. Conceptually, Bish Bosch seems poised to capture the same all-time-in-a-blink quality of Close To The Knives, New York artist David Wojnarowicz’s holy fucking good “Memoir of Disintegration”; but where Wojnarowicz kept his work grounded in connections of the body, with Bish Bosch Walker shifts almost entirely from the personal to the universal. In this evolution, the most striking development is the transcendence of sex. The desire to be seen as desirable; the urge to give and take pleasure (or pain); the pathway to the self through connection to an other: gone. Throughout his various incarnations, Walker’s work has always coursed with a potent sexuality, from the panty-throwing Beatlemania of The Walker Brothers’ early tours to his concupiscent covers of Jacques Brel, from “The Electrician’s” blackout S&M to the rough handlings of Tilt’s bodies in bondage. Bish Bosch, however, is populated with eunuchs and bdelloid rotifers (an asexual mite), sarcomeres and Syrinx (the virgin nymph)—when not outwardly neuter, Bish Bosch looks down upon the sexual as something cadaverous and putrid, with images of “reeking gonads” and a “Grostulating-Gorbi” (which is a GIF just waiting for animation).
Correspondingly, the score of Bish Bosch registers almost entirely from the neck up. In both Tilt and The Drift there were measures where the balance shifted from the physical listening experience toward that of an intellectual exercise, but Bish Bosch is a fantasia with little function other than to be marveled at. Freed of the desire to be desired, the compositions on Bish Bosch seek few moments of beauty or human connection; untethered from rhythmic, melodic or structural foundations, pieces such as the 10-minute “Corps De Blah” and the 22-minute turgid de force “SDSS1416 +13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)” wallow endlessly. The issue isn’t duration—Swans, Julia Holter and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are all making vital music at comparable track lengths—but a matter of diffusion and disdain. Slabs of Sabbath guitar and snatches of tribal bongo dip into the mix, dog-barking violins and lowing Kudu horns engage, but these isolated elements quickly dissipate, too disconnected to sustain, too bombastic to register.
Audience expectation is one more shackle in that indentured servitude of fame, and Walker shouldn’t be beholden to his past recordings. Tonally, however, Bish Bosch offers nothing dramatically new, just (a lot more) of what Walker’s done before: “Corps De Blah” and “SDSS1416 +13B” manipulate the same Cage-y silences as Tilt’s “The Cockfighter”; “See You Don’t Bump His Head” reciprocates the piston percussion of that album’s “Face On Breast”; The Drift’s hovering insect buzz reemerges in Bish Bosch’s quarky twinkle; and above it all, Walker continues to deliver his lyrics in the spectral vibrato that’s characterized his recent work.
Lacking any stylistic contemporaries, Walker risks becoming his own trademark knockoff. Like the great big “meh” that was David Lynch’s Lost Highway, in Bish Bosch Walker trots out his signature moving parts, but divorced of a human core, these efforts come across as empty exercises in style, no longer holding the same capacity to move, to shock, or to challenge. Following The Drift’s raw meat punches and flogged-donkey bray, foley effects like the sharpening blades in “Corps De Blah” and “Tar” and the paranormal interference in “Phrasing” and “Dimple” are clearly just that: effects. In an increasingly incompatible marriage of the visceral and the esoteric, what was once immediate now appears rehearsed; what was once bleak now feels embittered; what was once uncompromising now wears into tedium.
Perhaps the next great leap for Walker is a complete incorporation of the visual: already released with a hypnotic hula/swing video, “Epizootics!” cuts loose with Polynesian hip shake and zooted Badalamenti, by far the the grooviest Walker’s sounded since “Track Three” on 1984’s Climate of Hunter. “Epizootics!” is, however, an isolated bright spot—along with “See You Don’t Bump His Head,” it’s the rare space on Bish Bosch that invites return visits.
This is, instead, music to be chewed over in the abstract—though Walker mocks that very approach in “See You Don’t Bump His Head,” the album’s opening piece. Like The Drift, which began with Walker singing his own (mostly) rapturous critical praise, “See You Don’t Bump His Head” opens Bish Bosch with a self-reflexive feint, repeating the refrain “While plucking feathers from a swan song
” as he points out essential processes of the universe, everything that will continue to churn away while those with too much time on their hands strip away and debone an artist’s late-career work.
Herein lies the smuggest of dares—offering a composition so sonically unpleasant it can’t be appreciated at any surface level and then deriding the effort to make deeper sense of it all. This lead serves as a self-protective—and necessary—shield, because Walker’s libretto reveals an astounding lack of editorial discretion. Walker has long been a great shaper of lines, equally deft in handling the P.O.V of Mussolini’s executed mistress (“this is us, our eyesides snagged, dipped in mob”) or his own oneiric wanderings (“In the dream I am crawling around on my hands and knees smoothing out the prairie”). Throughout Bish Bosch, however, Walker spits out vocabulary culled from microbiology, astronomy and ancient civilizations, doling out arcane lingo as if the mere recitation of terminology represents a profundity. Worse, Walker attaches his deathly serious vocals to laughable goo-ga like “Epicanthic knobbler of ninon, arch to Macaronic mahout in the mascon” and “Earth’s hoary fontenelle weeps softly for a thumb thrust”; by the time he’s finished enunciating lines of seven-digit, Roman numerical code (think Marshall Applewhite channeling Tommy Tutone) in “SDSS1416+13B,” it’s clear which pearly gate Walker’s closest to knocking against.
Recognizing how fully he’s crossed over into pretentious self-parody, Walker lays on the levity. Toilet humor runs throughout “Corps De Blah” and “SDSS1416+13B,” while “Epizootics!” toots along to the great flatulent brass of a rare Tubax. “SDSS1416+13B” also finds Walker hollering Borscht-Belt one-liners (“YOU’RE SO FAT, WHEN YOU WEAR A YELLOW RAINCOAT, PEOPLE SCREAM TAXI!”) and in “Corps De Blah” he deploys his crack-production team to squeeze out tight-sphinctered, South Park fart noises. From Joyce to Beckett to DeLillo, the fart joke enjoys a rich literary history; those examinations of effluvium, however, were acknowledgements of the body as a vehicle for both the beautiful and the ridiculous, a housing of great compassion and silly stink. Walker’s always had a lively sense of humor (see the cowpoke riff and mythic lyric in Tilt’s title track and The Drift’s formal credits, where among strings, keyboards and backing vocals a musician is credited with “Meat Punching”), but Bish Bosch’s gags are all diversionary bullshit. Like the album’s namesake painter, Walker has shown the capacity to look man and demon in the eye during their conjoined descent—and as in Hieronymus’s Where’s Waldo-ish panels, Walker’s view from too far on high creates an awfully hokey perspective.
Isolated in a louse-ridden cell, Jean Genet smelled his own farts and peered into his shit bucket, contemplating the wastes of his body and the flights of his mind. Then, for his own stimulation, Genet created Divine, Darling and Our Lady of the Flowers—his art couldn’t exist without a basic human connection. The irony of Bish Bosch is that in its extra-terrestrial grab for timelessness, Walker ends up lightyears from the qualities that made his art timeless: the dark heat of “The Electrician”; the chest-swelling aria of “Farmer in the City”; the inebriate’s desolate prayer in “Rosary” (“I gotta quit”); the sustained discord of The Drift’s deteriorating nightmare. Now that he’s explored the very outer limits, let’s hope Bish Bosch is not in fact a swan song and that Scott Walker decides to come back down and join the living.