By Mark Abraham | 29 May 2006
In my experience, Scott Walker is so contentious that trying to write a balanced review of The Drift is going to be more of a headache than anything else. Luckily, I’ve obtained an extensive statistical study that shows Walker’s what-the-fuck approach to music has cleaved the population into three major groups: a small cohort of Scott-shippers, a large clenched-fist population of Scott-haters, and the majority of the world’s population, who say, “huh?” What follows is an attempt to address the concerns of each group.
Yeah. This isn’t going to change your opinion, so don’t feel guilty about not “giving Walker another chance.” It is what it is, and what it is you already know you don’t like. I’ll be over here shaking my head knowingly, even pretentiously, but hey, I watch Degrassi: The Next Generation religiously, so now both our creds are shot.
If you are unfamiliar with Walker’s work, I feel comfortable recommending that you try him out, especially if you fell in love with I Am a Bird Now last year. Walker’s romance-inflected (like, Shakespearean romance) baritone isn’t always a hit among fans of music, but it’s hard to deny his odd take on pop is frequently astounding, and I suspect Antony is more than a passing fan of the Scott.
A bit of history: Walker’s solo career began with a series of four eponymous albums in the late ‘60s; Scott and Scott 2 are a little over the top, earnest-wise, but Scott 3 and Scott 4 showed a more confident Walker experimenting with odd arrangements and lyrics that tackled a wide variety of subjects. At times martial and at times tongue-in-cheek, the four albums put a great singer/actor at the center of bubbling orchestral pop. Walker would release five more albums through the ‘70s and ‘80s, but none came close to the highs of 3 or 4.
It was 1995’s Tilt, though, that made Walker’s ‘60s output retroactively important. A complete turn away from the humming, ebullient ruckus of those albums, Tilt turned inwards, and Walker perfected a dense, gothic noise over which his ageing voice crooned lyrics about despair, angst and hollow joy. Claustrophobically thick, it might be the only album that wears a dead heart on its sleeve. Even with eleven years between then and The Drift, Tilt remains the highlight of his catalogue, which is why it pains me to note that if you want to try Walker out, you should really start there. The Drift’s water is just as cold and dank, but it’s the same well Tilt came from, and the shock of its temperature just doesn’t smart as much.
Now, hold on, guys, I know. You’re like, “Mark! How are we ever gonna spread the joy of Walker if you knock his new album!” And I understand and empathize; I was hoping this would be the one, too. But, I mean, if all The Drift does is move closer towards the cliff Tilt taunted us with so successfully, how can I possibly laud it with any integrity? It’s dark, dismal, and claustrophobic, sure, but did we really need a Tilt II?
We Walker fans can be as nuts as Tab junkies, battling each other for errant cases, stocking fridges with direct-from-factory orders, and, yeah, I love this album. The insanely interesting lyrics are out in full force. Two highlights include “Clara,” written from the perspective of Mussolini’s lover, who chose to face execution with him in the waning days of World War II, and “Jesse,” a haunting monologue delivered by Elvis to his stillborn twin-brother Jesse. On the latter, when Walker intones “I’m the only one left alive” with more than a little hound dog in his voice, the backing basically moving air, chills run down my spine. Walker knows how to create an effective moment.
The horn barrage that ruptures the gut of “Jolson and Jones,” the drones/guitar/drum shuffle attack of “Hand Me Ups” that dissolves into a single hand clap accompaniment, the nauseous roller-coaster string arrangements of “Cue,” the vicious stomp of “Cossacks Are”: all of these are the types of flourishes at which Walker excels. They are central to his approach to music, which consists primarily of slow, meandering verses and eruptions of caustic sound, usually wrapped in some haunting, iterated elegy. Walker manages to make a line like “That’s a nice suit / That’s a swanky suit” feel intense.
Unfortunately, neither the lyrics nor music of The Drift do much to build upon Tilt. In a sense, the truth of this album is the opposite of what I said about the Charalambides last week. If A Vintage Burden sacrificed tone for melody, The Drift sacrifices melody for tone, and I can’t get around the fact that if Tilt stranded me in some brilliant sonic asylum, The Drift makes any recognizable landscape vanish. Tilt, at the very least, had a series of (slowly) delivered hooks that maintained the forward momentum of the album’s tonal story; here, Walker is so focused on maintaining his atmosphere that those landmarks have withered under its weight. The string explosion that follows Walker’s delivery of “wrapped in blankets” on “Psoriatic” is a lovely moment wedged between five other minutes of uninteresting noise. The cute shift to a single acoustic guitar to back his forlorn voice on “The Escape” is nice, as is the fascinating heavier section that follows, all high hats and clipped snare hits, but the three minutes of noise leading up to the transition, while getting the tone right for the shift to work, aren’t in and of themselves that exciting to listen to. “Jesse,” despite the brilliance of it’s lyrics, grates at times; memorable melodies are scant, and the repeated intonation of “Jesse, are you listening?” eventually gets stale. We Walker fans may shout about the iteration, claiming, “that’s the point,” and to a certain extent it is, but Tilt balances this awkward line between sullen soundscape and pop far better.
So, in a way this album is just a battle of attrition. Those who lovingly caress their copies of Tilt have probably already jumped in its trenches, liking what there is to like, and there is much to like about this album, even if it doesn’t maintain the consistency of that masterpiece; those who find his voice annoying have already set up sniper posts across the field; everybody else is standing in the middle wondering what the fuss is about. The Drift won’t change that.