This review will start, as all Scott Walker reviews must, by explaining that Scott is the greatest lyricist, vocalist, conductor, experimenter, influence, and all around genius alive today. This review will also start by telling you that the reviewer has been a rabid fan and paid up member of the Walker Cult since “The Scott Bug” bit him as a teen. But if his early songs were more Frank Sinatra, Walker’s later career has been closer to Jandek. This is no longer music, in the traditional sense. It is avant garde, experimental, outsider art. This is the music a man might make alone. But because Scott is famous, he brings us along for the ride.
So with all this in mind – take note that this, and pretty much every other review you read will be inherently biased – all serious music journos are serious Scott fans. It’s practically part of the job application. But with that caveat in mind, the question is — is Bish Bosch actually any good?
It took me several listens to “get” Scott’s great dark 2006 art-epic, The Drift, which famously featured a percussion track made of a man pummelling a side of meat to simulate the sound of Mussolini’s mistress being beaten and lynched, not to mention the immortal line ‘I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway!‘ as sung by a dropout Al Jolson and Alan Jones, washed up musicians on the streets of Las Vegas embittered about the trajectory of their careers. Yes, Scott. We see what you’re getting at.
But in the same song there are also moments of unbearably, hearbreakingly vivid majesty. When Scott sings “the splendour of tigers turning to gold in the desert / pale meadows of stranded pyramids” it is with the same soaring hyper-real sensation Vangelis uses to such superb effect in the Blade Runner score – the instant transfusion of beauty in the darkness with a simple flick of the artist’s hand. These moments remind you of Walker’s true mastery. He can turn — and he can turn you — in an instant.
Bish Bosch is grand, but it lacks The Drift’s grandeur. It is a much darker, less accessible, atonal, difficult album. For all its pretensions, it is a less pretentious album. Bish Bosch is base and animal. Oblique references are replaced with visceral, if sometimes ironic, anger. There’s a 27 page analysis of the meaning of The Drift. I don’t think Bish Bosch needs 27 pages to understand.
It is raw. It is laden with raw, powerful, bitter anger — twisted, yet full of self-knowing irony, a sixty-nine year old man doing teenage angst as only a man in late middle age can — knowing he should know better, but still dripping with the disappointment that, maybe, his teenage self was right. Here’s to a lousy life, he repeats, endlessly, as the third track comes to a close.
But it is much more than an album about despair of past regrets. Bish Bosch is also an album with a desperately bleak world view about the society we live in today. Some commentators have already called Scott out for lyrics that are open to an interpretation of misogyny. Indeed, the “bish” in “Bish Bosch” refers to the gangsta colloquialism for “bitch”, and it does in places seem to be these “bitches” that Scott is railing against.
“Oh, oh, oh, this is my job,” Scott sings. “What’s the matter? Didn’t you get enough attention at home? If shit were music, you’d be a brass band”. When he pelts this out , unaccompanied, you can almost hear him sitting at home, shouting angrily at Tulisa Contostavlos as she judges X-Factor rejects on the TV. Indeed, Scott seems to be bitter about the lack of talent associated with fame. “Know what?” he asks. “You should get an agent… why sit in the dark, handling yourself?”
Of course, listening to a Scott Walker album is very much a Rorschach test. We each see a different thing inside the disturbing lyrics, we each interpret his work differently – his thoughts force us to confront our own. And that is why we debate his true meaning so endlessly. But what can’t be denied here is that while The Drift contained a dark majesty, a grandiosity that managed to remain tongue-in-cheek enough to avoid being ridiculous, Bish Bosch is raw, venomous, bitter, angry, and sometimes ridiculous. But it is so angry it doesn’t care. Fuck you. The album challenges you not to like it.
Does that make it a better album, or worse? Neither. It’s just different. Listening to Bish Bosch is a challenge. You don’t necessarily have to know what to think, you just have to lie back and let the music make you think. Listening to this album in the dark with headphones on is probably the closest you could ever get to having a bad trip in a sensory deprivation tank. The mind almost turns in on itself, unwilling to comprehend the stark bleakness of today’s reality.
Perfectly orchestrated, as ever, full of hidden depth as well as uncomfortable moments, Scott delivers his own review barely fifteen minutes in: “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face,” he sings. And indeed he has.
Of course the track before that features a brief interlude of percussive fart noises. Maybe the point is this: stop taking everything so seriously, the world is a dark place, but appreciate it for what it is. Don’t think about it. Experience it, accept it, and let it enable you to grow.
This is a darkly beautiful album. Perhaps not as good as the Drift. But hey, leave it with me and let me have another seventeen listens where I can climb into every song, be suddenly lifted up or brutally thrown by every line, and I’ll let you know.
In conclusion? Another important album by a very important musician who truly sounds like nothing else on the planet, whose originality, though it may have taken him to dark places, simply shines through. But, once again, this isn’t easy listening. Proceed with caution. And if you’re new to the cult, start with his back catalogue first.