Scott Walker – “The Drift” (2006)

May 12, 2011 at 9:43 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A review of this deeply disturbing and challenging record by 60s legend Scott Walker, taken from the Pitchfork Media website and written by Dominique Leone, May 9, 2006…

Forty years into his recording career, Scott Walker is still making music that he wants to make; like all great artists, he’s making music that only he can make — and hoping (or not) that other people catch onto something, anything in the big, dark, dense vacuum of The Drift. Walker beats the noise-mongers in New York, the conservatory-schooled theater kids, the gallery poseurs, the reclusive art-pop geniuses, all the perennially stylish genre tourists, celebrity revolutionaries, and outmoded underground icons. He, despite little more than a cult status in his native (and long since abandoned) country, has emerged a visionary, maker of some of the most texturally complex, viscerally emotional, and downright horrific music this side of anyone at all.

But then, the composer of The Drift, Walker’s first new studio record since 1995’s devastating Tilt, didn’t appear from out of nowhere. Rather, the Ohio-born artist (born Scott Noel Engel) staked a claim to the musical territory somewhere between orchestral pop and psychological soliloquy from his earliest solo records. After garnering major success in the UK as one-third of the pop act the Walker Brothers (none of whom were actually related, or born with the name Walker), Scott Walker left the group and released four LPs between 1967 to 1969 (Scott, 2, 3, and 4), each of which is held as a classic by diehard pop sophisticates. The earliest of these records were also successful in the UK, though as Walker’s themes became weightier (influenced not only by Belgian singer/composer Jacques Brel, but the dark end of art-house cinema and literature), his audience slowly dwindled. Walker released a string of albums in the early 1970s that retreated drastically from the ambition of his first four before unexpectedly reuniting with the Walker Brothers for 1978’s Nite Flights, and unveiling the first glimpses of the major musical artist we hear today.

Walker’s Climate of Hunter from 1984 furthered his movement towards the abstract (albeit very gradually), though it wasn’t until Tilt that his gift for radical songcraft and sound sculpting came to the fore. If his earliest solo music contained unusual themes for a pop artist, they did at least contain fairly conventional orchestrations and melodies. Tilt threw all that out in favor of a hybrid mixture of modern classical music, found sound, dissonant avant-rock, and hyper-personal vocal expression. It was a masterpiece, even as it alienated fans hoping for a return to comparatively calm waters.

The Drift is still further down an unbeaten path. Written and produced over a seven-year period, this record, like a painstakingly fine Ingmar Bergman film, moves slowly and deliberately, with an intense focus and refusal to turn away from disturbing “images.” Like Tilt, its stories are taken from a varied, almost overstuffed horizon of literature, news stories, Walker’s half-forgotten dreams, and otherwise poetic neuroses. Speaking visually, the music is mostly darker hues, though sudden flashes of blue light or explosive white beams punctuate an otherwise intimidating monolithic landscape. Walker describes working with “blocks of sound” as opposed to written arrangements, and the record betrays a broad, almost brawny movement, as if being slowly, persistently kicked in the gut by the characters (or characterizations) of the composer’s songs.

Lyrically, The Drift (like its predecessor) practically invites volumes of analysis, especially after repeated listens — but then, the best part about them is that they aren’t usually explicit. “Cossacks Are”, with pulled quotes like, “A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind” or “A nocturne filled with glorious ideas” could very well refer to Walker’s own music, or even poke fun at his reviews. It’s hard to say for sure, but impossible to resist looking for clues.

Throughout the album, textures change without a moment’s notice: The solemn organ and drum pulse of “Clara” leads like a brick to the head into the wallop of sticks on animal flesh and churning, nauseating strings, only to shed its skin into muffled-scream violins, and back again. Walker sings about a body “dipped in blood in the moonlight/ Like what happen in America,” and later describes a vision of the song’s namesake (“Sometimes I feel like a swallow/ A swallow which by some mistake has gotten into an attic and knocks its head against the walls in terror”). The images fly by as they would in a nightmare, and the music is no less surreal or paranoid. “Cue” looks at the parasitic life of a virus, proceeding like a Stanley Kubrick movie, free of any particular morality or obligation to end happily, and full of exquisite imagery, as considered as it is obscene.

“Jesse” begins with the hum of jet engines and a mutilated take on Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” guitar riff. Walker has described this as his “9/11 song,” and uses the motif of Elvis and his stillborn twin brother to make a statement about American mythology and hubris — and yes, that’s pretentious, as is most of Walker’s output for the last 30 years. It also reminds that “pretension” isn’t always synonymous with “bullshit”: Walker earns every one of his conceptual pretexts via the iron-fist dynamics of the songs, and his own deep, wet baritone, deepening the scope of every measure it inhabits. Sometimes, his words seem secondary, as on the explosive noise rock intro to “Hand Me Ups”, which sounds akin to legendary experimental Japanese band Ground Zero (check the bass sax!), or the pounding, jittery middle section on “Psoriatic”. Elsewhere, Walker’s voice is held afloat and given center stage by the gentlest accompaniment, as on the subtly wry album closer, “A Lover Loves”. If you don’t think the guy has a sense of humor, check the “psst-psst-pssts” between every verse.

There will doubtlessly be many listeners who don’t understand how anyone could listen to such relentlessly “bleak” music, but Walker is the kind of artist that exposes a lot of would-be art as background entertainment — and like a great artist, he doesn’t actually make a value judgment out of it; he merely goes on about his work, distancing himself from the fleshy pile of pastimes and people who would obscure the most ambitious functions of art. Walker inspires, scares, confuses, provokes — not because he wants to manipulate you, but because he’s an interesting person who’s worked a long time trying to make interesting music. Even at its most dissonant and abstract, this record is human to the core, and if you’re ready to face a few demons, it’s as inspiring as music gets.

Dominique Leone

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