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Scott Walker - The Drift

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Artist: Scott Walker

Album: The Drift

Label: 4AD

Review date: May. 7, 2006

What does it say of Scott Walker that he can take a decade in between each album and still have a new release greeted with quasi-religious fervor and devotion? In a pop landscape dotted with "here today, gone tomorrow" artists and records, it is telling that each of his albums has the power to bring old fans back into the fold and simultaneously claim hordes of new devotees. Then again, despite the fact that he has been a professed influence on artists ranging from David Bowie to Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, there are few (if any) musicians as bold, singular, and relentlessly/restlessly creative as one Scott Walker. In the past 30 years, Walker has released but three albums, a rate of productivity that seems insanely sloth-like, especially now that certain other "experimental" artists and folk tunesmiths drop full-length CD-Rs by the season. Walker's records, however, possess a conceptual density that is practically impossible to match; as such, the decade of near-silence that has followed both Climate of the Hunter and Tilt was entirely necessary. These records are not immediately accessible, steeped though they may be in some long-gone pop tradition. Ten years worth of listening is about what it takes to cut through the intense allusions, references and metaphors that tie his iconoclastic works together.

When approaching Walker, nothing can be taken for granted, as everything from the title to the last struck note is impeccably placed and labored, precisely calculated for a maximum impact that the creator himself is generally reticent to reveal. Titled The Drift, Scott Walker's first long-player in 11 years begs dissection beginning with its name – a drift from what, exactly? The pop sphere that birthed him and gave him super-stardom as a member of the Walker Brothers? The cult of personality that has surrounded his increasingly bizarre and complex work? A general critique of the super-structure that births larger-than-life personas and their nervous tics? Life into death?

For his group of obsessive fans, this is what makes Walker's music so enticing – it presents a labyrinthine descent into the darkest recesses of one man's demons and psychoses that is so serpentine it is almost impossible to find an exit. And, always one wary of the spotlight, the man himself provides few clues as to the meanings of his texts (and those that he does give are hardly illuminating). The Drift is littered with compact, intense psycho-dramas that are both deeply affecting and almost impenetrable. "Clara," for example, takes as its inspiration Claretta Petacci, a woman who chose to hang (and hang) with Benito Mussolini; the 12-minute piece is cut through with audible "meat punching," hints at the public desecration of their corpses. "Jesse" appears as a dialogue between a rock-bottom Elvis Presley and his still-born twin brother, with a screaming bass throb meant to mimic the sound of jets hitting the World Trade Center – the gruesome collapse and undoing of massive personalities, one an individual and the other a representation of worldwide hegemony. While these two tracks and their meanings are sign-posted in the liner notes, few of the album's remaining songs come across that direct. What to make of a track like "Cossacks Are," with its obvious references to lazy critical praise ("You could easily picture this in the current top 10," Walker sings with tongue planted firmly in cheek, all the while lamenting the fact that the "Cossacks are charging in")? And the constant reference to "a hand that is cold into another colder" on "A Lover Loves?"

Simply put, Walker's latest cycle represents the conclusion of the mortal coil and that road that leads us there. The Drift deals in death on two levels, the physical and the meta – the destruction of the body and the mind, the giving over of sound thought to erratic behavior, the desiccation of grandiose figures. With "Cossacks Are," Walker appears to foreshadow his direction – those Cossacks and their march, perhaps the stomp of the critical cognoscenti, or maybe even Scott fessing up to his complete indifference to commercial success, suicide by lack of sales, signal impending death and destruction. And on "A Lover Loves," he closes the book – whispered over acoustic guitar, the pulse dies slowly and fades away – a double suicide.

But in between these statements lay a host of peculiarities not so easily explained. "I'll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!" he shouts on "Jolson and Jones," a bewildering lyric that offers no easy explanation. Same goes for the "pee pee soaked trousers" and "muddied dress" that he speaks of on "Hand Me Ups." And the Donald Duck impersonation that climaxes "The Escape?" Your guess is as good as mine. There are undoubtedly reference points for these bizarre twists, but so deep is Walker's vocabulary that it's hard to tell exactly what they are without some specific guidance, especially when he traffics in so many lyrical dualities.

This is all part of Walker's appeal, though. At this point, few approach his music in the hopes of hearing another "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." As great a tune as that one is, Walker's current appeal comes from his singular dedication to challenging the pop orthodoxy and broadening its accepted parameters, and the beauty of his back catalogue is the lengths he has gone in his heterodoxies.

That Scott Walker was once classified as an MOR singer is baffling now considering just how far he has strayed from his former teen idol status. The tense guitars and death-march percussion that accompany his tracks have little in common with even the darkest pieces of his “numbered” records. And though the string arrangements are lush, they bespeak a dedication to the works of Ligeti and Penderecki, all tense and claustrophobic as opposed to the normal comfort of sweeping scores one comes to expect with highly orchestrated pop music.

No easy listening feat by any stretch of the imagination, Scott Walker's The Drift will provide critics and general music fans with talking points for the next 10 years. It is, simply, a work of staggering emotional sentiment and complexity that few will be able to match. It defies explanation.

By Michael Crumsho

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