Scott Walker and Sunn O))): If You Don’t Beat Me, the Stasi Will

Soused’s trapped, bleating circus elephants are harbingers of the prison-planet drones and transhuman monstrosities yet to come. Prepare for heightened beatings, motherfuckers.

“We are drawn to repetition. We can watch the tide rolling for hours into shore. The clouds skittering across the sky. We can listen to the pulsing beat of bongo drums and are drawn magnetically to the slap, slap, slap of a girl being chastised. The human is a mystery, even too himself.”

— from Girl Trade by Chloe Thurlow

The advancing years have a way of delivering an artist back to his formative mysteries and budding obsessions. For the less inspired, this can become a self-parody of recycled riffs and reunion tours. Others keep movin’ on with a difference, finding fresh ways up familiar mountains. Listeners routinely mistake stylistic excursions for material change. However, it’s the stubborn bits that bind the corpus. Who’d have thought picking at scabs was the journey all along? Evolution is overrated. The smart old-timers make peace with enlightened repetition.

Artist: Scott Walker and Sunn O)))

Album: Soused

Label: 4AD

US Release Date: 2014-10-21

UK Release Date: 2014-10-20

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/s/soused.jpgProcess refinements bestow fresh rewards on recurrent themes. Scott Walker is a fully engaged process manager. It’s no slight to his recent albums to suggest his tactical recountings of the music-making process are nearly as fascinating as the music itself (look for interviews on Youtube and elsewhere). He’s a control freak, not a fortuitous accidentalist, who devises the recipe and sweats over the stove, then exhibits little appetite for the final platter. Art-making is a palpably oppressive encounter, especially for Walker, against which all resistance is stylized and purely symbolic. Withstanding the heat in the kitchen—the beating—is the thing.

The chains are real and besides, talkin’ back only makes a mess of movin’ on. To the peeps, the product. By then, this creator (who harbors no performance aspirations) is done. Sometimes the Walker process leap-frogs the audience. The tactician becomes too clever by half or maybe brings too much personal stuff to the workplace. Of course an ambivalent invitation from the artist doesn’t diminish the marketing department’s unwavering commitment to sell soap. Scott’s a process manager, not a marketing guy.

Bish Bosch stretched the social contract to near-breaking. Walker’s nervous titters and jokes throughout the album were a clue that he knew things had gone too far. Scott lays down sonic gauntlets with his eyes closed. We expect that. Alas, unchecked self-indulgence evicts all chairs from the auditorium. The premise behind Bish Bosch’s ‘SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)’ was frankly more tedious than inspired.

On Soused, Walker wisely reels things in a bit. As for Sunn O))), they serve with a gentlemanly acquiescence, which is pretty cool, considering they have their own dark row to hoe. Not surprisingly, these are not seamless unitary compositions. As a rule, Walker’s lyrics dart like minnows from the hyper-physical to the historical to the darkly humorous. This requires a copacetic plasticity from the music.

By contrast, Sunn O))), exemplified on Monoliths & Dimensions, employs monotone vocalizations that bleed across the soundscape with all the allegro of Heinz ketchup. Everyone knows Sunn O))) is a Pentagon black-box conditioning program intended to normalize the uninterrupted hum of drone-surveillance. Hum, you say? What hum? Why is Walker collaborating with the Black Iron Prison? In the drone metal camp, inflection is a sign of weakness while poetic modulation is evidence of residual soul.

Yet this is Scott’s gig. So we get in Soused a one-and-a-half-headed beast, really a spoken-word accommodation that sportingly contends with discordant pacing. (Can I not mention Lulu? Thank you.) Perhaps breath marks are a too-human concession, but I prefer minding the gaps. The discrete and determinate blocks of sound in Tilt and Bish Bosch do a better job of loosening the stays and permitting exhalation. Enough of this zero-sum breath-play. A droog’s gotta breathe, ya know?

In short, the sum of the parts on Soused yields a mild subtraction that remains compelling, though not overwhelmingly victorious. I like it. I’ve listened to it a lot. I’m going to listen to it a lot more. But it should probably remain a polite one-off affair. My favorite track is ‘Fetish’ where music and lyric manage a symbiosis, neither exerting mastery over the other. What’s fetishism but the constellating of a broadly malevolent world into a manageable and highly stylized control-paradigm?

At the midpoint, there’s the insinuation of gray-dawn light, as though catharsis might be at-hand. Is the body being cut down from the whipping post? Not so fast. In short order, we’re returned to dark canvas at knife-point. The beauty of inflection is that a few improbable shards of light challenge a darkness that always wins. Just ask any dungeon-master. Ultimate despair is heightened when brief collapsing avenues of escape are allowed. Mindless repetition can flatten the palette as pitiful boredom lays siege to pitiless cruelty. Tilt and The Drift construct and manage the tension better than Soused.

If you’re after a perfect marriage, take a listen to Ute Lemper’s version of ‘Lullaby’ (on Punishing Kiss (2000)). On Soused, Walker clearly sings against the soaring majesty of Lemper’s earlier definitive version as though embarrassed by his predecessor’s sublime dignity. (It’s the fifth and final track on Soused.) While Lemper is the angel of history hovering improbably above the wreckage, Walker’s compulsion always has to have him robbing beauty of final victory. In this, he shares Beckett’s post-modern suspicions of aesthetics, eloquence and an almost pathologic Spartan forbearance. You can hear it in his oft-repeated obsession about paring the music down; also, in his late-career allergy to grooves, hooks and choruses.

Since at least 1978’s Nite Flights, it’s been bye bye lullabye for Walker, who’s on record as a lifelong nightmarist. Too-virtuosic musicianship blunts visceral terror. The Lemper version (a Walker production and composition) is easily the most gorgeous track I’ve come across in a long time. And how about inviting a few more farmers to the city, Scott? Desolate beauty deserves a reprieve in your future schematics.

Okay, the universe has drifted into an unremitting, blithely inhuman, military-industrialized clusterfuck and the perennial necessity of jailers, strongmen, infanticidal kings, third-world torturers, Minotaurs and Masters cannot be argued. An all-eclipsing power is deterministic if not preordained. (‘Some are born to it / you can tell’, from ‘Lullabye (bye bye)’). Soused’s trapped, bleating circus elephants are harbingers of the prison-planet drones and transhuman monstrosities yet to come. They’re warning us that our collapsing prefabs of flesh and bone, our bodies, will soon not be enough. The Walker-Sunn Oh))) message is clear: Prepare for heightened beatings, motherfuckers.

“When the power of the shift rips the human body apart and transforms it into its new shape, there lives a second, less than a second, a mere shimmer of time when the mind is without a home, no body to call its own.”

— Finn Marlowe, ‘A Thread of Deepest Black’

Did I mention recurrent themes and that bullshit-mirage called style? Power is the static elephant in this dude’s room, beating like a telltale heart all the way back to the Year Dot. The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore, bitch, ‘cause The Hellfire Club blacked-out the windows. ‘The Electrician’ is the Stockholm Syndrome set to music: All this voltage is making me love you. Everywhere, we hear the transformative delirium of consummate capture, the horror of personal invasion and, yes, the illicit pleasure of it all. In fact, methinks Scott raileth too much against the intrusive nail, the Stasi goon, the galloping Cossack, Il Duce, et al, et al. Enduring theme? Make peace with indignity. Fetishize it. Keep it in a box. Anything that doesn’t kill you just might stiffen your willie.

So Moloch lives. The babies are on the king’s menu. What’s new? Walker dresses nothing up. His wonderful baritone has been stripped of its dignified Paul Robeson gravitas. Goulet’s Camelot cowers in the Famine-Tower of a Thousand Lashes. You can hear in the opening bars of ‘Brando’ the dying embers of Oklahoma and Ol’ Man River, all that desperately maudlin parsing of the great American songbook that, in the end, proved no match for the void. The Drift (2006) found Elvis’ dead twin Jesse on his hands and knees attempting to repair the gouged Midwestern plains east of the Missouri. But it’s never enough. Soused still finds us on our knees with our pants down. Thwack! Thwack! If The Drift’s America couldn’t mount a revival, surely the twin-epizootics of ISIS and Ebola have slammed the door shut in 2014.

“The most intimate / personal choices / and requests / central to your / personal dignity / will be sung”

—from ‘Lullaby’, Soused

Singing subjects the soul to a terrifying exposure. Night paralysis and the sweat of rigid compliance have a way of showing a guy who’s boss. Scott’s personal dignity has been permanently overrun. His voice is constricted into acquiescence. All choices have been locked away. And by Troy, he’s learned to enjoy it! Abject capitulation lies at the heart of his recurring nightmare. With Our-Father-who-art-the-Panopticon holding us in an endless mirror-gaze, the oddest comfort comes from knowing our predicament is shared. Scott squirms with us, too.

Splash image: Still from Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – Soused promo video