The Return of Scott Walker
The Drift and Beyond
By Miles Bowe
In late 2011, after five years of silence, Scott Walker returned to the studio. A new album from him occurs unexpectedly, like some sudden natural disaster. Roughly once every decade, Walker will emerge from the studios he has spent years in prior, with about an hour of music that consistently challenges the audiences perceptions his of musical ambition. The massive evolution his albums take result from the long periods of time in-between, and he always tops himself. Walker's return now stands as especially significant, because the album he released in 2006 seems impossible to surpass. It was something he had been working up to since his time as a pop-star in '60's England, the most extreme and fully realized collection of songs he had ever made. It took elements from the outside world as jumping off points: Elvis Presley, 9/11, pestilence, war, famine, and death. The Drift, however, exists in an absolute vacuum; outside of any music scene, or any influence. Created by a relic of the past, nearly 50 years after he started his musical career, Scott Walker recorded his masterpiece.
His journey began in the 1960's. As the frontman of The Walker Brothers, he and the band embodied a rare reversal of the British Invasion: an American group who moved to the UK to great success. Number one hits like "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" led to a few years of massive popularity; Scott's fan club at the time rivaled The Beatles. However, after a series of critically-lauded but increasingly alienating solo albums, Walker's career died. Throughout the '70's and '80's, Walker would intermittently be noticed again, but always fleetingly. Something unique happened during those years however. The solo albums, Scott- Scott IV, began to have a major influence on artists. David Bowie cites him as one of his biggest influences, while Brian Eno, Johnny Marr of the Smiths, and Radiohead have discussed at length in interviews the importance of his music. Finally, after being completely forgotten, Walker returned with Tilt in 1995, though he had been developing it since 1987. Walker found himself in the spotlight again, in a different way though. Tilt did not comprise anything; a dark and devastating record in a way his older work had always seemed to hint at. The pop star history which weighed like an albatross finally lifted, as Walker now graced the front page of The Wire, where they compared him to both Van Morrison and Franz Schubert. In the wake of Tilt, he made talk of a tour, and a quick return to the studio; and then nothing. After a decade of silence, we now come to The Drift, the album that feels half a century in the making.
The Drift, like its individual songs, lacks cohesion. It flows more like a collection of short stories rather than a great novel. It can be tackled as one piece, or each song can be individually appreciated. Regardless of how one approaches it, "Clara" acts as the key to understanding Walker's musical and lyrical approach to his nightmarish vignettes. The titular woman, Clara Petacci, was the mistress of Benito Mussolini. Petacci famously refused the opportunity to escape and chose to face death with the Dictator; the photographs of their beaten corpses hanging upside down remain burned into society's memory. The song shifts spontaneously from moments of uncomfortable near-silence as strings eventually surge to a violent section of blaring horns, war drums, and most disturbing of all considering Petacci's fate, a percussion section beaten out on the side of a dead pig.
Walker explained in a rare interview that he saw the images of Mussolini and Petacci as a child in the '40's, and there it incubated until it returned 60 years later; evolved as the 12-minute dirge-epic, "Clara." This gives a deeper meaning to lyrics such as, "This is not a cornhusk doll dipped in blood in the moonlight... this is us... dipped in mob in the daylight," but Walker provides no context nor demands his listener search for any. He finds elements of reality, takes them in, and releases something illusive and completely his own. The historical influences in his descriptions of a hanging body, spoken with the calmness of a coroner, put us right in front of that news reel in the '40's, but he takes it a step further. When he sings in his deep baritone that the event is "like what happened in American," and uses the gentle, but threatening drummed coda to talk about holding a helpless swallow, he moves into a dream-like surrealism that blends with the history perfectly. After the fitting introduction of "Cossacks Are," his ode to Petacci, the second song on the album acts as the first significant moment. It works as a thesis statement for The Drift, and is placed right next to another historical-yet-surreal portrait, this time about a pair of twins: Elvis and Jesse Presley.
The yin to the surging violent yang of "Clara" can be found in the suffocating sadness of "Jesse." The song, forever branded as Walker's "9/11" song, does make some obvious allusions to the Twin Towers, however it works well with "Clara" as another case of Walker taking in historical fact and warping it into his own personal vision of a doomed person. The song is named after Jesse Presley, the identical twin of his famous brother Elvis; Jesse: older than Elvis by just over half an hour, and stillborn. This much we know as fact. What follows is Walker's existentially horrifying dream of these two sets of twins and the devastation they've succumbed to.
Opening with a broken deconstruction of the "Jailhouse Rock" guitar riff, Walker immediately intones the fate of his subjects, all sung in the 1st person perspective of Elvis. "Nose holes caked in black cocaine," the first line coupled with the normally memorable riff, that here sounds so mutilated, implies Presley's death of a cocaine overdose. Afterward, Walker whispers, "pow... pow," the simple acknowledgment of 9/11, that he spends the rest of the piece tying to Elvis and his own twin. Jesse, as always, remains silent. Elvis, described here as "six feet of foetus" may have died over 40 years after Jesse, while the Towers shortly after one another; but time matters little in Walker's dream-like lyrics. Presley collapses in slow motion over the years as his godlike image begins to sour, and Walker sees him as doomed from birth. Of all the violent and brutal sections of The Drift, nothing sounds more quietly disturbing than the final section of "Jesse." The last verse brings us into a dream of Elvis' and it's not just any dream: "In the dream/I am crawling around on my hands and knees/smoothing out the prairie/all the dents and gouges." The dream implies the significance and possibly recurring nature. The image of Elvis on all fours trying to do the impossible, flatten and smooth a prairie may be bizarre, but the existential dread that it carries hits close to home for any listener. Why did they hit the towers? Why did they have to kill all those innocent people? Why is my brother dead before I ever knew him? Why do I have his face? Why? We can ask our own questions, but we'd be sitting right in that prairie next to Elvis. He receives no answer and presses his head onto the grass; suddenly the anxious strings, the buzzing electronics, the fractured riff of his old hit, everything drops out into silence, and Walker moans the final realization of his character: "Alive, I'm the only one/ Left alive/ I'm the only one/ Left alive." After the slow burning build to the song, for it to drop into utter silence leaving only Walker's pained voice sounds anti-climactic, yet it also works as a devastating catharsis. Walker took the history of Elvis, tied it into the current political crisis, and made the American cultural god into a doomed tragic hero crying out for his lost brother.
Though these two monoliths are the key songs on The Drift, every track finds Walker painting a unique picture with his music and oblique lyrics. One extremely important technique used throughout the album finds Walker using the studio-as-instrument philosophy to acts as a Foley artist, especially in pieces like "Jolson and Jones" and "Cue." "Jolson and Jones" creates a dense world of imagery, equally exotic and grotesque, a place "where nice girls were turned into whores/ Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted." The use of Foley technique, or the reproduction of everyday sounds, makes everything more gripping. The imagery of the lyrics are only increased by things like shuffling footsteps, distant yelling, and at one point, a screaming donkey (actually brought into the studio and recorded). It all seems absurd, yet in the context, it takes his listener into a vivid world. "Cue," an epic that acts as a character study of a steadily spreading pandemic, uses the sounds of boxes being slammed as an ambiguous message. At first, they sound like the crates the diseased ridden ships are carrying, yet by the end as the sickness spreads they seem to imply coffins being made; the definition shifts as the song takes on a new context.
The fact that Walker's work takes so long to be created could almost be a good thing. It gives listeners a great deal of time to let his dense work soak in. Yet, sooner than ever in decades, he has announced his return to the studio, and now reports are saying that the record could be done as early as this year. Walker's direction cannot be predicted, though he has said that after The Drift, he only plans to keep shaving down his technique into something even more singular. The "blocks of sound" technique present on The Drift (instead of chorus/verse/chorus the songs were all comprised of various sections, or "blocks") will be polished and refined even more, but what Walker will fill his songs with cannot be predicted as all. The Drift, unlike anything before or after it (until this point), stands as Walker's masterpiece, an accomplishment unsurpassed by any musician working as long as he has. The fact that he has been generating music since the 1960's, and making his best work now, in his 60's and 70's deserves tremendous respect.
The Drift will soon have a follow-up, a new update into Walker's perverse and dread-filled world. It looms over us like a distant storm. We cannot predict when this storm will hit or how powerful it will be, but it will come soon. Scott Walker has returned. Brace yourselves.
Special thanks to Tim Riley
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