i avoid superlatives whenever possible. If people ask me (and they do, surprisingly often) to name a favourite composer or artist or album, i invariably either deflect the question away—”i don’t really have one…”—or reflect it back at them—”i’m not sure; how about you…?”). For the most part, the best one can hope to come up with, á la Paul Morley, is a list of favourites that is true at that moment, but would be different, perhaps entirely so (but no less true), at any other time. (Morley writes about this, and many other wonderful things, in his book Words and Music, which right now i might describe as the most brilliant book about music ever written, but tomorrow, who knows…?). Hence my aversion to superlatives, and their transient—and, in any case, subjective—character. Sometimes, though, one encounters something so incredible, so marvellous, so utterly different from anything else hitherto encountered, that superlatives become the only meaningful way to express anything remotely accurate. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t happen often, despite the large amount of music to which i listen, and so when it does, it’s a real shock, a gorgeous surprise, an ineffable thrill, a rapturous provocation of everything from confusion and disbelief to gasps and tears. And as i say, when the stun and stammering have passed, one is left reaching for the acmes of language.
Scott Walker (real name Noel Scott Engel) was one of the original Walker Brothers (‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’), but quickly established himself as a solo artist, releasing a series of albums that are arguably the pinnacle of 60s easy listening. Equally quickly, though, emerged a powerful dissatisfaction with the “crooner” image; in the sleeve notes of his second album, Scott 2, Jonathan King wrote, “This album had just been completed, and Scott and I were having dinner and I asked him how he felt now that it was finished. ‘I’m afraid it’s work of a lazy, self-indulgent man. Now the nonsense must stop, and the serious business must begin.'”. The same year, Walker threw himself into an intense study of music, including a period at the Isle of Wight’s famous Quarr Abbey (home of the relocated Solesmes community), examining Gregorian chant. His songs quickly deepened, both in terms of intensity and also lyrical scope; alongside self-penned compositions, Walker’s albums included a substantial number of songs written by Jacques Brel, whose lyrics are consistently provocative and highly poetic. Nonetheless, the influence and effect of all this appeared to dwindle relatively quickly. Following a number of albums, none of which featured original material, and a reunion of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker disappeared from public view, and since then has released one album each decade, charting an increasingly original journey through deeply personal themes, always poignant, sometimes acutely painful.
His latest release, from two years ago, is The Drift, and bearing in mind everything i said before about superlatives, i can truthfully say that i believe it is the best album ever made. Ever. Goodness knows, there are few enough occasions, when listening to music, that one becomes aware that this isn’t just another album, but something utterly unique, entirely different from anything one has heard before. The Drift is just such an album. Responses, very much divided and most of which display a high-charged hysteria, make for curious reading; claims abound that it’s ‘nightmarish’ and ‘scary’; one reviewer on Amazon even opts for phrases like ‘sheer terror’ and ‘beyond the limits of fear’—it seems i’m not the only one reaching for superlatives. The album’s impact is in no small part due to its utter originality, originality that has a lot to do with the brutal collision of the familiar and unfamiliar. The textures, for example, bring together the acoustic timbres of orchestral forces and the unpredictable tenor of electronics, a juxtaposition that can never be made particularly gentle. Furthermore, there’s not a conventional song structure in sight; even in the shorter tracks, there’s little that resembles a verse and absolutely nothing that could be described as a chorus. and in the longer tracks—five of which extend over 6 minutes—one simply has to allow one’s definitions of the word ‘song’ to be completely re-written: these are compositions symphonic in scope, surveying a landscape blindingly vast. But perhaps the collision is most felt in the placement of Walker’s voice above this indelicate combination, a voice that still evokes the 60s crooner and songs of romantic fluffery. To hear such a voice singing melodies that are by turns angular and ominously monotonous, uttering lyrics that are so concentrated with meaning that they become almost intoxicating, is a genuinely disturbing experience; and yet, for all its paradoxes, The Drift is also the most entirely unified and consistent album i’ve ever heard.
Walker sets the bar very high from the outset; the opener, “Cossacks Are”, is a breathtaking track, and one that immediately displays the beauty of his matured voice, leaping up wide intervals. “Clara” is the longest track, and arguably the most inventive; there’s a passage where the percussionist thwacks repeatedly against dead flesh, an utterly raw sound (no pun intended), horribly evocative of the song’s narrative about Mussolini. It’s a song that takes its time, unfolding the narrative through a series of highly distinct episodes; especially striking is the one a little over 9 minutes in, where a claustrophobic, muted electronic miasma appears, and while an Eastern pipe nasally intones, Walker asseverates: ‘A man came up towards the body/and poked it with a stick/It rocked stiffly/and twisted around at the end of the rope…’. “Jolson and Jones” takes this kind of episodic writing to rhapsodic levels, but with a greater sense of brooding than in “Clara”; all the same, it has some of the most violent eruptions on the album, made all the more horribly strange at one point by the noise of a braying donkey. There is, however, a lot of restraint demonstrated in this and other songs, a restraint that too many reviewers have clearly forgotten about, their memories recalling only the more wildly tortured moments; “A Lover Loves”, for example, parallels its lyrics in an atmosphere of spent resignation, while “Cue” and “Buzzers”, could be exercises in pianissimo, although the tone is most definitely one of menace rather than gentleness. Likewise, “Jesse” is a wistful, emotionally drained lament that seems only barely to possess the energy for its occasional outbursts.
All the same, the ominous percussive tone is admittedly unavoidable; “Hand Me Ups” is relentless in its momentum, garnished with deep saxophones and some typically quixotic twists and turns; “Psioratic”, by contrast, is less outré but built on ominous, oozing layers. The most apocalyptic and disturbing song, though, is “The Escape”, where the episodic nature of earlier songs reaches its most extreme form. At first gently melancholic—almost matter-of-fact—before lurching into hysterical energy: ‘You and me against the world… World about to end’. It appears to subside and ebb, only to conclude in a really horrifying quasi-Donald Duck impression; Walker seems to be mirroring the world he describes, teetering on (if not actually tipping over) the brink of mental collapse.
In every sense of the word, this is the opposite of ‘light’ music; it is dark, foreboding, unflinching, confrontational and exhausting—and it is absolutely brilliant. It’s an album that needs time and repeated listenings to speak—and, no doubt, some determination and courage from the listener—but the result is (and, for me, continues to be) among the most rewarding musical experience one could ever have. To quote the lyrics of “Cossacks Are”: ‘Has absence ever sounded so eloquent, so sad? I doubt it.’
If this whets your appetite, check out his previous album, Tilt, which has much in common with The Drift but isn’t quite so extreme. Also, the Barbican is hosting “Drifting and Tilting – The Songs of Scott Walker”, a three-day festival in mid November, celebrating the music from these two albums.