Late in Scott Walker’s new album, Bish Bosch, you can hear blades clashing behind his voice on “Tar”. It’s no surprise to hear that slicing sound in Walker’s work, even if it’s haunting in its own stark, beautiful way. It’s no surprise because Walker’s work cuts it, smashes it, breaks it down. Walker creates anti-spectacles. His music stretches out but doesn’t grow as it does. Rather, it spider webs out in an increasingly intricate, complicated, sometimes unknowable mess of cracks. Sounds splinter into shards instead of cohering into powerful movements. Like 1995’s Tilt and 2006’s The Drift before it, Bish Bosch confounds at every turn. It clatters and rattles, but also keens and sways. It scrapes and scratches but also glides smoothly (on occasion). You’d be inclined to call it post-apocalyptic with all its shadows and negative space, but really it feels like it comes from a land that can have no apocalypse, that never formed enough in the first place to have a beginning, let alone a decimating end. Walker does not mine through ruins. He never lets the structures get built in the first place.
Perhaps as complicated as the textures and movements of the songs here is the theoretical genesis of the album, not-quite-explained by a title that gives us a slang version of “Bitch” and the last name of dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch. It also resembles, apparently, a sort of wiping of the hands, of a job completed. Of course, nothing is complete here, but Walker does claim a link to one of Bosch’s masterwork, the heaven-and-hell triptych The Garden of Earth Delights. That work, a large-scale oil-on-oak that moves from Adam and Eve to a hedonistic picture of sexually entangled people in life to scenes of damnation is a sprawling, incredibly ambitious work. It’s a complete, even chronological movement from right to left. In this way, it has nothing to do with Bish Bosch.
But the painting is also cut into three, its structure alone imposed a sort of disconnect on an otherwise seamless image. Here may be a better link to Walker’s musical world. He deals only in cutting, in disconnection, and yet somehow renders these breaks in vast, seemingly complete albums. Here we start with “See You Don’t Bump His Head”, driven by tom drums that are either military-tight or looping like a skipping disc. Feedback wails faintly, even angelically, before the operatic roll of Walker’s voice bursts forth with “While plucking feathers from a swan song,” introducing us right away to tearing away, to breaking down. Tinnitus-sounding keys grind behind him, but as they fade a perfect hard-rock guitar riff comes in and rattles off a perfect hook. Twice. Then it’s gone. The 10-minute “Corps de Blah” groans with dyspeptic looped sounds that can’t sit still, that move from one collection to the next, with no seeming connection between them. There’s also, believe it or not, faint and then not-so-faint sounds of flatulence that completely take the hyper-seriousness of the track.
But herein lies some of the greatness of Bish Bosch. Despite its ties to vital art from the past and its incessant line of obscure references and Walker’s own pretentions as an artist, this is also industrial opera dramatics mixed with musical slapstick. In the 21-minute “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”, he tells the tale of Attila the Hun’s court jester, a dwarf named Zercon and a dwarf star — a real one with the classification number in the title — that is either metaphorically linked to Zercon or something Zercon becomes himself. Of course, it doesn’t render that story so much as it ties disjointed symbols together, Zercon and the star included, to get at, well, something. But he also tosses off childish lines like “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band” and the timelessly clichéd “Does your face hurt? It’s killing me.” At one point, he speaks of a “Roman, who’s proof that Greek’s fucked bears.” The album presents a lofty sense of beauty and composition, but cuts it with a low, and surprisingly charming crassness.
These are ridiculous moments of course, but they also render all the scientific imagery as metaphor and obscurity of references here feel more human, more approachable. It’s an album that should, in one way, have footnotes to cover its geography and scattershot list of terms. But in the other way, Walker’s effect is so much murkier than all that. The words matter, but only so much as they get at feeling. So as “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flatpole Sitter)” moves through four desiccated movements, it’s more the way, say, distorted, low horns shadow Walker’s voice that will hook you. It’s the cut-up strings, the distant, solitary organ, the sudden warbled punk-rock that bursts to life in the middle, that makes the song so arresting. “Epizootics!” has a jungle thump to it that makes it more propulsive than the other tracks here, even as it devolves into skittering empty space in the middle. Closer “The Day the Conducator Died” is as heartbreaking as the album gets, as Walker tones his brash singing down to a warbling whisper, keening about how “nobody waited for fire” with equal parts anticipation and disappointment.
Disappointment for something that never happened. The album ends, intentionally or not, with bells that sound a lot like Christmas-time jingle bells, hinting at a holiday that can’t possible counteract all the bleak darkness of this record. It bears a much closer resemblance to the industrial skronk of Tilt that the gonzo-opera madness of The Drift, but here there’s even more disconnection. Walker’s voice is right up front in the mix, and there’s a layer of nothingness, some lingering blackness that hangs around everything else, between him and the instrumentation here. The effects are jarring, isolating, both for you and seemingly Walker. Bish Bosch does not give us the chronology or resolution Bosch’s triptych could. Instead, it constantly plucks at that swan song. Picking even at the ending of things until there is no timeline. These are songs, but also they are not. They are movements, but also they don’t move so much as grow and crumble in the same spot over and over again. It’s troubling and beautiful. Sometimes its conceits get in the way of both those effects — as on “Corps de Blah” or the blasting electronics that upset the sweet stillness of “Dimple” — but mostly it presents us with something that could be brilliant if we could understand it. We can’t, though, it’s not set up that way. In “Corps de Blah” there’s a sculptor that keeps slipping, and so it is with Walker. Nothing quite takes shape, because he’s constantly slipping with his chisel. The slips are intentional. The gap between hearing Bish Bosch and understanding it a cultivated one. It’s an anti-spectacle, but also an anti-mystery. Because you drawn to return to it, to find the details and hidden gems that make you feel this music deeply — for better or worse — even as you know there’s no clear answer. No satisfactory one. Just the feeling, as big and broken and impossible to pin down as the album that evokes it.