Scott Walker‘s new album Bish Bosch, out on 4AD, is part three of a loose trilogy that began with Tilt, followed by Drift and now concludes with the sprawling, scatological, majestic and arresting Bish Bosch. Scott Walker is about as far from his 60s teen idol days in this album as he might ever be. Where to begin? I suppose with a warning; If you are the type of listener that won’t be able to stomach a line like “dragging my wormy anus round on shag piles from Persia to Thrace,” or “I’ve severed my reeking gonads, fed them to your shrunken face” then this album is not for you. But then again, you probably wouldn’t be a fan of the challenging late-career Walker, either. The album is an event — almost as theatrical as it is musical. It’s a sonic experience expansive enough to hold centuries of history, hell, the decay of the body, and humor — with glimpses of heaven as well. Scott sounds like a falling angel rotting away in the midst of a bad trip.
The title, as indicated on the album’s website, refers to three terms: “bish,” which is slang for “bitch”; “Bosch” as in the medieval painter Hieronymous Bosch; and “bish bosh,” or English slang for “job done, all sorted.” Which ultimately combines to achieve Scott’s reference to “a mythological, all-encompassing, giant woman artist” for the title. The dense layers of history, hysteria, paranoia and verbal abuse evident in the lyrics and music of Bish Bosch are the culmination of an aging music figure’s career. Not to say that Scott will be done soon — but he could be. “I’ve always thought since the late 70’s, ‘This is my last record.’ Every single record has been that way… I guess I just pull the trigger each time,” he says. Bish Bosch certainly is, in a cursory way, like Finnegan’s Wake as The Drift is to Ulysses. Both albums are theatrical, and highly allusive (elusive to some), but where The Drift was grandiose, exulted, and relatively accessible, Bish Bosch challenges us via the anus, the deformed midget jester of Attila the Hun, recondite biology, and very often direct insults — “Know what? You should get an agent… Why sit in the dark handling yourself?” Like Finnegan’s Wake, there is a lot in here, and much of it inaccessible to the average listener, or so full of ambiguity and seeming non-sequiturs (“Norsemen DO NOT eat the big pink mint”) to provide room for vast discrepancies in interpretation. The Drift was accompanied by an almost 30 page booklet of explanation — but with Bish Bosch, how do you write a liner note to something like “a sphincter is tooting a tune,” which is followed by several outbursts of flatulence? Especially when it occurs immediately after a harrowing string passage? (Whether the farting is Scott himself, I wish I knew…) I did immediately think of Serge Gainsbourg’s novel Evguenie Sokolov, about a man with an uncontrollable flatulence problem, which he eventually harnesses into an artistic prowess — but that’s just one of the many directions a listener can take during the album, and as a work of art it encourages such jumps across ideas, people, or history.
Amidst it all — through and throughout the abysmal silences and bursts of blasting drums, creeping walls of string textures, the swish and clank of machetes (real machetes, much like the pounding of a real slab of meat on The Drift to simulate the beating of Mussolini’s mistress…), and farting — Scott Engel’s voice, that famous velvety voice, floats mostly un-moored. He pushes himself to hit unexpected notes, straining often up into the higher registers of his range. Even in the presence of the tubax (on “Epizootics” most notably — a combo of tuba and sax as tall as a person and of which there are only two in the country), the aggressive guitars, the full string orchestra, the whole plethora of instrumentation on the album, Walker’s voice remains, as always, the most dynamic instrument of them all.
The album’s lyrical density, with its leaps between historical eras, between different hidden corners of the decaying body, between omniscient poetry to direct, brutal, address — are all matched by the frenetic pastiche of musical styles coupled with spaces of bottomless silence. The silences of “The Drift” and other previous Walker albums were marked by the hisses and hums evident in the analog recording preferred by Walker — but for Bish Bosch the production team ran a digital master and an analog master at the same time, so that when there were silences, they could cut the analog track later and the silence would be purely a stark digital quiet.
A few weeks ago, 4AD released a video, directed by Olivier Groulx, for “Epizootics” which comes off Side 3 of the album. It’s as close to a single as the album provides. The tubax blares up from the bowels of the earth to a jungle beat, layered with guitars that could send you on a bad trip — “like a face being eaten by a jungle”.
The incredible amount of information packed into this record — lyrically as well as musically — will provoke many different responses, but one thing for sure is that this album is probably the most challenging, rewarding, and unique musical achievements this year. “Nothing clears a room,” Walker reminds us, “like removing a brain.” The album is a bit like that. A review is limiting — Bish Bosch speaks for itself, so do yourself a favor and listen to it when you have an hour to simply sit and digest it. The epic 20-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” at the center of Bish Bosch alone would be an achievement. Fans of Walker’s already have already eaten up this album, or will soon — but for those who are adventurous and curious, Bish Bosch will not disappoint in its singularity and craftsmanship. Regarding an artist who releases an album consistently about every seven years, to talk about Bish Bosch in an “album of the year” discussion seems a bit irrelevant, but it certainly is the most arresting thing you will hear released in 2012.