Scott Walker has only released three LPs in the last 22 years. It has been 11 since his last solo LP, Tilt. Walker doesn’t suffer from writers’ block. Rather, he has an imagination that needs to be both channeled and allowed to roam. The music he creates needs time to develop.
The Drift, with lyrical imagery of ‘nose holes caked in black cocaine’ and ‘anthrax Jesus’, combined with a musical backdrop of frenzied psychotic strings and rumbling percussion, is as far removed from easy listening as it’s possible to get.
This is out in the margins, removed from ‘pop’ and ‘alternative’ genres by the scale of its reach, its bloody and bold ambition. It is complex, multilayered, densely plotted, wordy. It’s also scary, harsh and bruised. The Drift blends blocks of musique concrete with snatches of folk music, jolting strings with long drifting sections of slow desolation. Walker’s voice, frayed around the edges but still full of emotional power, acts as an anchor, the centre of the music’s ebb and flow. It directs and guides the listener through the labyrinth of sound and image.
This material shreds any conventional notion of the song. This is rock music as high art – there are no verse-chorus-verse structures here. There is nothing so simple or linear, no law, no rules, just expression in its purest form. Musical reference points are difficult to discover or disclose. Penderecki arranged by Iain Sinclair. Morton Feldman’s tonal clusters sprinkled with TS Elliot’s dark verse. An audio version of Picasso’s Bombing of Guernica. Francis Bacon’s searing paintings turned into a classical score. To trace The Drift’s bloody pathways, unpick its dense impressionistic lyrics, requires secret knowledge, a broken compass and total immersion into its world.
The opening Cossacks is a misdirection, a false dawn. It begins with high, whining strings and an echoing, austere guitar riff. The atmosphere is heavy with dread. Marching drums and tense bass notes intensify the mood before Walker’s timeless voice enters the fray. The lyrics are series of tag lines from reviews mixed with snatches of news reports. The vocal hook ‘with an arm across the torso, face on the pale monkey nails,’ is the closest that the whole LP gets to a chorus. Cossacks and the closing Lover Loves are the tracks that get closest to what is commonly held to be a ‘song’.
Following on from Cossacks’ opening pummeling is Clara. It is the tale of Mussolini’s lover Clara Petacci, who demanded to be executed by his side. The opening minute is a gentle ambient mix of electronics and strings; the vocal enters and traces out a gentle melodic refrain. Just as it seems to be settling into something that could have been culled from Scott 4 a huge slab of noise crashes in. A mixture of terrifying strings, crashing percussion and a guitar that sounds like a gun shot too the head. For nearly thirteen minutes the track undulates between slow mournful passages and stark, corrosive blocks of sound. It is truly nightmarish. Clara twists, morphs, you can’t settle, they music doesn’t allow you to. Your never sure when those crescendos’ will return to send razor sharp splinter of sound through your speakers.
After Clara’s aura assault The Drift doesn’t relax its grip. Jesse is Walker’s attempt to deal with 9/11 juxtaposing images of the Twin Towers with Elvis’s stillborn twin Jesse. The soundtrack is dense strings and violent guitar squalls. Cue is built on a slow meditative string movement more Ligeti than Craig Armstrong. The restrained mood is shattered by the sound of a cinder block banging against a five foot square wooden box. Imagine the sound of someone constructing a set of gallows for your own hanging.
Listening to The Drift late at night, alone, on headphones, is not a good idea. This is a frighteningly dark, intense record. Jolson and Jones feature strings like a murderer’s knife scraping on your bedroom window. The percussion is like a parasite sucking blood from decaying flesh. These are only the framing for the blood curdling sound of a braying donkey. The donkey screams out without warning half way through the track and it’s enough to provoke nightmares in deep, scared physiological realms.
The closing Lover Loves casts Walker’s vocal against an uncomplicated acoustic guitar backing. The traditional framing of that beautiful voice is undercut by the sinister whispering that concludes each verse, demons beckoning Walker further into the abyss. Although the sound is lighter than the tracks that precede it, there’s still no escape, no relief.
Yet for all its dark truths, horrific imagery and harsh musical textures, The Drift is an extraordinarily rewarding listen. Walker, bravely, strips away all elements of commercial songwriting from his material, leaving no room for compromise. Only Tom Waits or Talk Talk‘s Mark Hollis have traveled so far from their humble pop beginnings. The bar has been raised, a challenge issued, the notion of what music can achieve questioned. The answer Walker has provided is simple. The only limit is that of your own mind. Here Walker’s fevered, diseased imagination has painted a portrait of a world broken, choking on its own vomit, devoid of salvation, screaming in pain, lost without faith.