I love it when something out-weirds me. I have a distinct tongue for the weird, musically speaking. Perhaps it's to counter the sheer pedestrian nature of my corporeal life, but when a bizarre sonic peacock perches on my eardrum, and I'm not sure whether the savage beast will soothe me or kill me, it's where weird gets really good. Jandek is like that, in his brutalist guitar abuses and intonations of harsh mortality. Coil, particularly the dearly departed John Balance, stirred my blood with their taboo sex magick. Nurse With Wound's Stephen Stapleton is another, in that he continues to find yet odder teats on the Cosmic Cow to milk. But put all these together, and you either have genius or a mess on your hands, and in Scott Walker's The Drift, you get both.
Walker first came to my attention in the 90's when his album Tilt was being held aloft as the last stab of brilliance left in the pugilistic underground scene. I never really got it. Tilt came off , to me, like Bryan Ferry on spoilt peyote, polar opposite to the jingle jangle dada of fIREHOSE and Slint that was supposed to save us all. To this day, I can't get into that album from a sheer weirdness perspective, and I a lot of ways, his new album after a decade of relative silence almost escapes my grasp.
The blatant synthetic orchestral hues here smack of Andrew Lloyd Weber or perhaps Smashing Pumpkins' two synth albums, both sectors of music to which I am so loathe, that when someone claims to like them, my first thought is "Why are they lying to me?" But, what saves Walker from the scrap heap is how deeply spooky it all is. The grisly melancholy never gives up. It's what Adult Contemporary in Hell sounds like. And then, his semi-operatic delivery is difficult to believe as well. Like most operatic voices, I acquiesce to their talent, because fighting the fact that I hate this style of singing and exultations upon the difficulty of obtaining this skill in order to convince me of its merit are impossible to avoid. But again, it all works into the nauseating dream world Walker creates with this music.
There are incredibly absurd lines oft-repeated, like "I will punch a donkey in the streets of Galway" in "Sonny Boy" over the frenzied cries of said punched donkeys and minutiae like "A chair has been moved about two centimeters" in "Jolson and Jones" and transmogrified twang like in the Bergman-tense "Jesse" ostensibly about Elvis and his stillborn twin, but also about cocaine and the destruction of the World Trade Center and hubris in general. It's the kind of elaborate yet banal symbolism that could launch a thousand sophomore English essays.
The songs generally have the lugubrious pace of a coal barge on the River Styx that has broken its moorings, but somehow they pull you in, until they seemingly shit you back out. One exception is the Chinese Opera/devil's lounge combo. "Hand Me Ups" that lumbers along, stopping occassionally to let you know that old black eyes is crooning about "I felt the nail driving into my foot/I felt the nail driving into my hand." Scott Walker freely channels Jesus, Stalin, rapists and sniveling drug fiends with equal gusto and yet, his crushing self deprecation, like the single hand clap behind his repetition of "His audience is waiting... and mentions of "The pee-pee soaked trousers/ the torn muddied dress/forever and ever... is glorious. This is no sophomoric no-one-understands-me business, this is cosmic Beckett anhiliation. Listening this album can be a life-threatening/affirming overdose of catharsis or it can be about as entertaining as being beaten to death with a fish. I'm not sure which sentiment is dominant. All I do know is, I can't look away from this grisly, magnificent car wreck of a record, even though my internal highway patrolman is franticly waving me to move on. I even kinda hate it at points, but in ways that makes me totally love it.
Dig, if you dare, the mini-site set up for the album by master graphic alchemitsts at 4AD: http://www.the-drift.net/
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com