The voice will grab at you first; perhaps you’ll remember it, vaguely, with a chill. It’s a wobbly, quivering baritone-falsetto reminiscent of Bryan Ferry circa early Roxy Music, or more recently Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. Except Scott Walker did it first, that moldy warble crusted with sweet-sour pining for a past that maybe never was, and, oh, a future that’ll be a long time coming, if ever, if ever, ever . . .
The Drift is Scott Walker’s first disc in several years; he took his time to get it right. But then, he would.
A bit of bio here might help. Born Scott Engel in Ohio in 1943, by age 16 Scott is in Los Angeles, a fledgling teen-idol bass player who gets drafted into the singing Walker Brothers by ultimate hipster producer Jack Nitzsche. The Bros have a huge hit with “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” go to England, become even huger pop stars with trilling, panting girlie fans, Top of the Pops showcases, more English hits ’n’ fame. But Scott burns out, drops out, starts watching Antonioni, reading more Proust and Burroughs, grokking contemporary classical. He discovers Jacques Brel; does mid- to late-’60s solo albums: Scotts 1, 2, 3 and 4 — some might say warped swan dives into ever more poisonous saccharine. He tries to make a living as a normal “interpreter” of modern sappy song, fails, hides out, walks the dog; things happen, dot dot dot. Then in 1995 Scott comes out with the magnificent Tilt, a digital-deconstructive collage-collapse into a-new-kind-of-pop-music and queasily insane vocal overstylization, unsurpassed until this new . . . item called The Drift — stranger, harsher, more obscure, more brain-searingly beautiful and more chillingly, terrifyingly real than anything since its sequestered twin sister, Nico’s The Marble Index.
Walker, then (for he kept the name), is known as a reclusive, between-the-cracked-cracks genius figure (thanks to loving attention paid by the Brits) who has somehow scored the opportunity to do what virtually no veteran professional musician gets to do, which is to throw off the shackles of career wisdom and “pop” sense and just go down the rabbit hole of his psyche. He recorded The Drift at Air Studios with producer Peter Walsh, a 5-by-5-foot wooden box for percussive effects, some trash-can lids, massive string sections, sundry electric guitars, and a tubax, which is a saxophone larger than a tuba.
Scott Walker has given some hints in interviews about what these songs are “about,” but he’s aware he can’t be trusted to really know. Yet consider “Cossacks Are,” retching forth in spindly electric guitar through seemingly webbed hands, snare drum thwapping, Walker bleating of stumbles in snow and various reigns of terror. In “Clara,” cue queasy swirls of electronic & electric wind & wire and remorseless dense strings in spooky scenarios (“She knows this room/she can never gaze it in the dark”) all the more creepy because of the remote helplessness of Scott Walker himself. For the man gives off the distinctively blurry vibe of someone who long ago gave up the ghost and headed for Gomorrah, and all this is creepier still because, obviously, he is our very own barely suppressed creepiness.
Meanwhile, Scott’s wispy friend Clara gazes at the fountain in the courtyard and says, “Sometimes I feel like a swallow/a swallow which by some mistake/has gotten into an attic/and knocked its head against the wall in terror”; Walker stamps around and cries in pain. Varied and ineffable pricks and swaths of sound-place surface: bass drone, bleating Middle Eastern reed, distant thronglike electric guitar; “This morning in my room/a little swallow was trapped/ . . . I picked it up so as not to frighten it/I opened the window . . . and I opened my head.” He’s written a song, but you’ve just seen a 90-minute film, perhaps with your arms strapped to the chair and your eyes taped open.
In the hopefully controversial third cut, “Jesse,” Walker horrifically analogizes somewhere between the fall of the Twin Towers and the stillborn twin brother of the towering King, Elvis Presley. It’s not a tribute to firemen, rather a plunge off the 50th floor into a vat of oily metaphor. “I’m the only one left alive/I’m the only one left alive/I’m the only one left alive.”
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It’s by now obvious that Walker’s inventing a musical language as if to start totally from scratch, as if it can be done only this way considering all that’s happened, whatever in particular that might be. Walker’s sound design/structures are an all-embracing but tradition-rejecting total-music akin to John Cale’s way of thinking on his production of those early Nico albums — vast, impenetrable clouds of “dissonant” string chords, electric guitars suffering brutal contractions in odd tunings, fearful evanescent spirit voices (our own), and altogether unidentifiable skewerings of murky sonority mixed not just for depth but for crosstalk, feedback and transparency. The transparency was a necessary effect, as these horror stories’ protagonist/observer passes through the music like a ghost would wander through walls, from one dusty, cold room to another.
In “Jolson and Jones,” Walker sings of “the grossness of spring” amid a worrisome mass of bleak-house strings, tornado-cometh guitars and electronic shred and whir, all coming together, coughing roughly and staggering forward again, down a hallway of memory, which is a very scary place. Though Walker is compelled to turn the corner into that room, his cracked croon isn’t bloody and unbowed; he croons now as if in complete loss of control. (By the way, what actually did happen there? You remember . . . don’t you?)
There is music — rarely encountered — that makes all other contemporary songcraft look very stupid beside it, that temporarily leaves all other music to curl up and die. The Drift is that kind of experience, encompassing fear and recrimination and sentimentality and crushed naiveté and the feeling of having been stabbed in the back and the heart forever and ever amen. What to call this is a real stumper, but it’s possible at least to convey the result of hearing it: