A few weeks ago, a black envelope darkened my doorstep. Inside was an invitation to the listening party for Scott Walker’s 14th studio album, Bish Bosch, the details of which were only revealed when a scrim the color of blood was laid atop the card. And so I found myself at the McKittrick Hotel on the West Side of Manhattan one chilly black night, inside a locale better known as Sleep No More, the immersive, site-specific labyrinthine re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth put on by London’s Punchdrunk theatre company.
An usher gathered a few of us in a group and a server offered up shots of absinthe. Soon, I found myself stumbling through the shadowy corridors and gloomy rooms of Sleep No More, feeling the effects of the drink and taking it all in through a mask I found along the way (not unlike this). It seemed imminent that I was about to experience an Eyes Wide Shut moment. The soundtrack was the jackhammering loops and shrill sound of sharpening machetes that rhythmically underpin Walker’s latest.
Despite four decades in the realm of commercial music, film auteur Stanley Kubrick might be the closest corollary to Scott Walker, now aged 69. Both are Americans who crafted their idiosyncratic oeuvre in England, no doubt now mistaken for European artists. Both enjoyed mainstream success in the ‘60s, Walker as a member of orchestral-pop outfit the Walker Brothers, Kubrick via Hollywood hits like Lolita, Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove. By 1968 though, both men turned towards the avant-garde, Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Walker with a string of solo albums that took the European art song of Jacques Brel and Bertolt Brecht elevated it to a higher form. And it’s Scott Walker’s art song from which all others have sprung over the decades: Kate Bush, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Diamanda Galás, Bat for Lashes, etc. All owe a debt to Scott Walker’s irascible vision.
“Just when flatulence threatens to reveal Walker to be an old coot obsessed with bowel functions, a terrifying din of orchestral strings overtakes the song, goose-flesh prickling up on an audience tittering just a minute before.”
Yet what strikes me about hearing Bish Bosch for the first time is its sound design, especially when the sharpening four-foot long machetes slice across the stereo field. Ever since Walker juxtaposed free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker with Dire Straits’s Mark Knopfler and Billy Ocean on 1983’s Climate of the Hunter, his knack for making the discordant and disjointed seem musical has been unmatched. And Walker’s sound palette here is broad: migraine drums on “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head,’” nylon-string guitar figures, vertiginous strings (that could be right out of the Monolith scene in 2001), skronking horns, black metal guitar riffs, ukulele, a xylophone that taps out “Jingle Bells” at album’s end, Walker spaces and blends them together in peerless fashion around his Dracula-ic baritone.
Bish Bosch, which Walker told writer David Toop combines British slang with a euphemism for ‘bitch’ and Dutch fantastical painter Hieronymus Bosch, is high-minded and guttural. Scott Walker has made song subjects out of the plague, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, communism, and on the last song here, repressive Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu. But on this album, Walker goes low as well: numerous references to shriveled scrotums, a line about “blowing up bullfrogs with a straw,” even some snaps like: “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band.”
One of the album’s most uncanny moments is lodged in the ten-minute “Corps de Blah.” A horn blats out in rather rude fashion and the roomful of listeners cock their heads, as if mis-hearing that tone. But those horns let rip again and laughter fills the room as Walker delivers a line about “a sphinctus tooting a tune.” But just when flatulence threatens to reveal Walker to be an old coot obsessed with bowel functions, a terrifying din of orchestral strings overtakes the song, goose-flesh prickling up on an audience tittering just a minute before. It brings to mind that scene from Kubrick’s The Shining, when that horrific sight of blood flooding out over the Overlook Hotel’s elevator and filling the screen and our vision, the strings equally shrill. Only Scott Walker could insert a fart joke before such horror and make both work. Or as one audience member put it upon exiting the Bish Bosch listening party: “Let’s see what you’re doing when you turn 69-years-old.”