In 1995, Scott Walker released Tilt, an album that has often been described as one of the most difficult and obtuse “pop” albums ever recorded. Now, 11 years later, Walker, who originally rose to fame as one of The Walker Brothers (a group that once rivaled The Beatles for popularity), has released The Drift, an album that makes even Tilt seem simple and obvious by comparison.
Recorded over the course of seven years, The Drift finds Walker pushing the stripped down arrangements and structures that can be heard on Tilt to their uttermost limits. It’s difficult to describe the ten compositions that make up The Drift as songs. Eschewing any sense of typical pop structure, the tracks also move away from the elaborate orchestral arrangements that Walker toyed with early on in his solo career. The orchestra is still there — more than seventy musicians are listed in the album credits — but these are not your typical arrangements. Not by a long shot.
Walker constructs these “songs” out of blocks of sound, blocks that he moves around and pieces together, puzzle-like. Such an approach seems like it would result in rather staid music, but the exact opposite is true.
Sometimes, the blocks are devastating in their onslaught. The orchestra might still be present, but it moves with all of the subtlety and grace of an avalanche descending down the mountainside, devouring small villages in its wake. Sometimes, the blocks are assembled off in the distance, creating a backdrop of dread and anxiety — nervous guitar drones, percussion sounding out death marches, forlorn ocarinas and flugelhorns. And sometimes, they’re just plain absurd — a man punching a slab of meat or walking down a set of stairs, a wooden box being constructed, or the explosive braying of a donkey.
It’s random and disjointed, never once giving the listener anything to latch onto, never a time to truly become comfortable and “settle down” with the music. Even the rare melodic hooks are short, mere teases, precursors to yet another uncomfortable block of sound that shatters the stillness. The only thing that the listener has to latch onto is Walker’s voice, and that provides little comfort.
Walker’s voice is, for all of its strangeness, quite magnificent, a rich voice that he sends swooping and diving through the songs with an almost operatic flair. That is, until he decides to sing in gibberish, blow into the mic, or erupt into a kind of demonic Donald Duck impression. Which, while absolutely silly, is also the stuff of nightmares.
Once again, Walker leaves the listener scratching their head… and looking over their shoulder.
I wouldn’t necessarily suggest a face-value reading of Walker’s lyrics. I doubt that a literal interpretation of such lines as “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” or “Immunity won’t feed on the bodies/Bones closing too soon at the tips… From the voice flooded semen clotting to paste/Can’t swallow it than bury it” will reveal all that much. Rather, it’s the feelings, sensations, and even subconscious imagery generated by such words that Walker seems to be going for.
Is it pretentious? Most certainly. It’s likely that The Drift will be the most pretentious album you’ll hear all year. And maybe next year. And maybe even the year after that. But that doesn’t mean The Drift is something that can just be dismissed, as many no doubt have. The Drift is undoubtedly difficult and sometimes, is only palatable in small doses. But Walker certainly isn’t pretending to make any other kind of music. He’s very conscious of what he’s doing.
For all of its surreal, absurd blocks of sound, it’s clear that each and every moment of the album is carefully composed. While a good deal of experimentation may have gone into the album’s creation — how else do you explain a side of bacon being used as a percussive instrument? — nothing seems off the cuff or thrown in there “just to see what happens.” The long spaces of silence, the sudden eruptions of sound, the strange wordplays and imagery, the vocal phrasing — each is intended to elicit the maximum effect.
But what effect?
In some rare interviews done in conjunction with The Drift and the Walker documentary 30th Century Man, Walker has discussed the album within the context of protest songs. And perhaps that is the best way to view The Drift. It is absurd, mad, and disjointed, the product of man who is prone to nightmares. But perhaps it is that way in order to point out the absurdity, madness, and disjointedness that marks our day and age.
As Thom Jurek notes in his essay on the album’s third track, “Jesse,” the track can be read as an exploration of September 11, as seen through a conversation between Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin Jesse. In times of stress and depression, Presley would talk to Jesse out of desperation and fear.
Using this narrative device, Walker crafts a harrowing ballad that opens with horrific imagery (“Nose holes caked in black cocaine”) and ends with Walker desperately crying “I’m the only one left alive.” It’s a sound of pure despair and loneliness, a powerful summation of the insanity that September 11 — and terrorism in general — has plunged us into.
But the most chilling moment of The Drift, and the one that I think best conveys Walker’s intent, takes place on the track prior to “Jesse.” Inspired by the death of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, “Clara” is a story of sullied innocence sprinkled throughout with grotesque imagery (“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”).
In Walker’s version of the story, Clara is seduced by the power of fascism and is unable to escape when it’s too late. As Vanessa Contenay-Quinones sings from Clara’s perspective, “Sometimes I feel like a swallow… which… has gotten into an attic and knocks its head against the walls in terror.”
It’s an image that Walker revisits at the song’s conclusion. In a hushed voice, he tells of a bird trapped in his room, seeking desperately to escape. Walker quietly ends the song on a chilling note: “I picked it up so as not to frighten it/I opened the window/Then I opened my hand.” The soft, insistent drum that has been setting a martial beat throughout the song suddenly ends on his last word, and the momentary silence is shattering. Then “Jesse,” with its ruminations on 9/11, begins.
It’s a chilling moment, as if Walker is pondering the frailness of life in a world where monsters such as Mussolini are spawned and seduce innocents. And the transition into “Jesse,” which explores the deeds of monsters that are still with us, does not seem accidental to me in the slightest. Both of these songs are indicative of The Drift’s pretentious aesthetic choices, but the nonsensical-yet-nightmarish lyrics, anxiety-riddled atmospherics, and sudden eruptions of sound as the tracks’ foundational blocks do their little tectonic shifts have a cumulative effect that cannot be ignored.
Indeed, the album will not let you. You either have to acquiesce, or just throw the whole thing away entirely and move onto something safer and more pleasant.
More info on Scott Walker can be found 4AD Records, as well as pHinnWeb. Visit The Drift mini-site.