Coming 10 years after his last major work, the enigmatically headspinning Tilt, Scott Walker’s new record is a triumphant return to his glorious past. Spector-esque pop sits alongside dark ballads blah, blah, blah, blah…
Of course it’s the opening that we still want to read. It’s the record that would see Scott 1-4 cash in, clean up, and be feted and celebrated. The lost boy child come home. Except that’s not how it will be. The road Scott Walker had chosen to slowly travel knows no way back. It might be a road that leads to ever increasing obscurity, cut adrift from all recognizable trends and movements, but it is a lonely road more vital, pulsing, and essentially modernist than the one any of Walker’s supposed contempories find themselves on.
The Drift is dense, terrifying, and discordant. Shards of orchestral noise are ripped and pasted into the nightmare landscapes of these songs. Lyrics, more of which later, are cut away to the blood and bone as the words confront and stare down melody. But here’s the thing — these songs soar! They are alive, crawling forwards, out of time and rooted in something more abstract, detached, but utterly relevant. How can something so profoundly moving and shocking be written off and brushed under the carpet as ‘file under experimental’. The experiment on The Drift comes with the chances being taken, the ideas that are being sung. Maybe it only sounds so jarring and strange because the climate of rock and roll it has been born into is so stale.
On track three, “Jesse”, Scott Walker sings: “I’m the only one left alive”.
Despite not being clever enough to review this record properly and not having the knowledge or the ear to pick up on the musical and literary allusions that are crawling all over The Drift, I am sure that after five listens, this is a singularly brilliant album. Of course, it was going to be more than five, but in truth that was enough, even too much. It is a draining and uncomfortable listen that leaves as much confusion and shadowy questions as it does moments of sheer clarity and shocking bloody beauty. It’s an album that will most likely sit on the shelf for weeks and weeks before it is brought out again. But even out of the here and now, even weeks, months, and years down the line, The Drift will lose none of its raw, devastating artistic power.
Opening with “Cossacks Are”, a beguiling, urgent, creeping song surely cloaked in the deepest black humour, the record immediately challenges. Guitars echo and the spaces, as Walker sings the refrain “with an arm across the torso…”, are filled in with the ghostly moaning of strings. Elsewhere, other spaces are left bare and bold, haunted only by Walker’s voice, no longer the rich baritone croon that coloured those early recordings, but a voice that is taut and wired and more haunting than ever. In “Jesse”, Walker apparently marries the traumas of Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin with the collapse of the twin towers. It’s a song that seems to be holding up a cracked mirror to the ugly, bloated American dream. Indeed, on “Clara” Walker sings the line “Dipped in blood in moonlight / Like what happened in America”, as the song falls apart then reconstructs as a horror story tracing the darkest movements of human ugliness.
On track nine, “The Escape”, Scott Walker sings: “World about to end / World about to end”.
Throughout the record there is a wilful and powerful lack of compromise. Free from the shackles of convention, the songs are allowed to be played out exactly as you feel they are imagined in Walker’s head. There is no other place in 2006 you will hear bloodcurdling screams followed by handclaps, unrelenting, pounding noise and what sounds like ghostly Arabic background voices all inhabiting the same song (“Hand Me Ups”). And this is one of the reasons that, above all of the extraordinary noise, The Drift sounds so essential.
As for the lyrics, to fit the music here, Walker has created a world of unflinching, nightmarish imagery. At times the lyrics seem to be ripped straight from the canvas of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and at others, in debt to a strange poetry, as half-familiar phrases are mangled into a compelling slideshow of words. Personally, I have no real clue as to what Walker is singing about on The Drift, only the tragic inference and feel of these songs, which is heavy and palpable.
How to sum up a record like The Drift then? At once a fiercely subversive artistic statement completely out on its own in 2006, and also an album crackling with the most modern of ideas. There are thin lines here that are traceable all the way back to Walker’s early work, certainly threads that connect the off-kilter soundscapes of the likes of “It’s Raining Today” (from Scott 3) to the place he now finds himself in. As for the emotional impact of these songs, though remaining abstract and cloaked in confusion, the emotion haunts the air long after the album has clicked off. Is it mankind’s gradual, quickening drift into hell? The drifting of lost, forgotten love and regret and shame that lingers heavy in the atmosphere of these songs? It’s impossible to say what Scott Walker intends with this. It is enough to say that there are sounds being made here and passions being bared that nobody else in 2006 is capable or willing to confront. There are echoes of absurdity and pitch-black humour, echoes of melody and desolation, songs that are huge and broad but still whisper to you. It’s the sound of a man on a singular road to fuck knows where, and as such, The Drift — in all its nightmarish, bloody glory — is as bold and profound a comment on our times as has emerged so far this century. Essential listening.