Small Clever Rooms
My Favorite Albums of 2012 list omitted what was probably one of my most anticipated albums of the year. In fact, it didn’t make that list. The reason is not that it disappointed me—though in a way it did—but because even if it hadn’t it definitely would not be an album I’d want to return to often.
The album is Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch. Scott Walker is a fascinating man, and his recent musical history (where “recent” means “since about when I was born”; this is “recent” relative to Walker’s musical career stretching back to the 60s) is such that the release of Bish Bosch was quite a notable event. Walker’s last album The Drift was released in 2006. Its predecessor Tilt came out over a decade before that. In the 60s, Scott Walker was quite the pop heartthrob, I guess. His band The Walker Brothers had a hit single entitled “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” A few decades, fame-induced breakdowns and musical dead ends and false starts later, Walker is in another universe than ours, one where such a notion as “pop stardom” doesn’t exist, beaming back reports every five or ten years or so. It doesn’t sound like a pleasant place to be.
Bish Bosch, even more than The Drift and Tilt before it, is an otherworldly album. There are few melodies, and what melodies there are sure as hell aren’t tonal. Instead there are suffocating swathes of microtonal strings; detuned, distorted guitars twanging forlornly or forebodingly; unidentifiable electronics chittering prickly menace; and wide expanses of near-silence or ominous drones. Taken as a whole, it’s a nasty, perplexing, often outright hostile and abrasive slab of ugly words and noise as pitch-black as its cover. But it’s compelling despite all that, enough that I feel the need to write about it four years on.
I want to say the album flew under the radar of most people, and that I’m coming down from the mountain with a huge secret that no one else knows about. But it appeared on several other year-end lists, somewhat perversely. The New Yorker. My erstwhile favorite review site Cokemachineglow. It even made #1 on one list: according to Tiny Mix Tapes, Bish Bosch was the best album released in 2012.
This is hilarious in light of Tiny Mix Tapes’s name. Will anyone ever put a song from Bish Bosch on a mix tape? If I’d done so when I was making mix tapes for my girlfriend, she’d have thought I was a serial killer. Even “tiny” is laughable in this context. Any mix tape with a “late period” Scott Walker song on it is not tiny. Even his shortest songs can’t but be massive. All are black holes of the kind you can only form by compressing a novelette’s worth of fractured, inscrutable, hallucinatory lyrics, atonal melodies, and outright sound collage—years in the making—into a ten-song album totaling just over an hour.
The penultimate song in the three-album trilogy of sorts that Bish Bosch concludes, the shortest and possibly most digestible song in the whole batch (“digestible” being a nauseating and therefore appropriate word to use to refer to any song here, to be sure) is called “Pilgrim”. It’s about two and a half minutes long and its lyric totals about thirty different words. It could be said to have a pretty conventional structure, with a repeated verse and a bridge, if the verse is the part where Walker rasps “Heya, heya, heya, heya / Room full of mice” over a carpet of skittering drums and the bridge is the part where he sing-speaks about blowing up bullfrogs with a straw. Like much of Bish Bosch, it seems primarily about decay and wanton cruelty, if one had to say it’s “about” something. Other favorite subjects of Walker’s: disease (and the spread thereof), dictators (and the execution thereof).
It’s dark stuff, but Walker approaches it in an almost playful way. One of his favorite tricks is to take two seemingly unrelated ideas, toss them into a song together, and see what happens. Sometimes we get a kind of alchemy: he forges an unlikely connection between them, as in The Drift’s “Jesse”, where he almost makes us believe that the shade of Elvis Presley felt the fall of the Twin Towers as an ache mirroring the absense of his twin brother who died at birth. The absurdity of the connection on its face makes it all the more affecting when Walker sort of pulls it off.
Other times, as in Bish Bosch’s “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died (An Xmas Song)”, the two ideas lie separate and inert. That song seems to make no attempt to tie together its “verse”’s unadorned recital of a personality questionaire (“Most of the chaos in my life is caused by / ○ Internal factors / ○ External factors”) and the “chorus” consisting of the single repeated line “Nobody waited for fire.” That line refers to the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the Conducator of the title, where indeed the firing squad did not wait for the order to fire to do so. What are we to make of this juxtaposition? We’re left to connect the dots: is Walker suggesting that a personality inventory of this kind might determine if the listener is the type who would “wait for fire”? Is he inviting us to laugh at the existence of such personality tests in a world where people won’t give a man—brutal dictator though he may have been—a dignified death? How does the single, final, horribly skewed personality test question “The mad dogs swarming from her groin / ○ You noticed / ○ Didn’t Notice” fit in to all this? If there even is a right answer to any of these questions, I wouldn’t expect to have found it with any of my speculation. But of course it does force me to speculate. It’s easy to Google most of the references and allusions that Walker employs in his lyrics, but that just leaves you with two or more unwieldy, amorphous blobs of information, and no inkling of how they’re supposed to fit together.
It could all be unlistenably, intolerably, unrelentingly oppressive if Walker didn’t also have a sense of humor and a pretty deft compositional touch. He breaks up his claustrophobically intense crushes of noise with equally agoraphobic expanses of near-silence, which are a relief until they start to become ominous. And, even more so on Bish Bosch than before, his lyrics are shot through with non sequiturs which might have you raising an eyebrow or laughing out loud depending on how they catch you. Some examples:
From “Dimple”: “Frozen fast in the lowering night / In the lowering left-testicle night”
From “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head’”: “While plucking feathers from a swan song / Shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines”
From “Epizootics!”: “Oops, pardon the elbow / Let’s just shift you over here / Sorry / I’m so clumsy / Take that accidentally in the bollocks for a start”
From “Corps de Blah”: “Nothing clears a room like removing a brain.” (Or putting on a late-period Scott Walker album, one assumes.)
Of course, for every line such as the above, there are three more like “Epicanthic knobbler of ninon / Arch to Macaronic mahout in the mascon” or “Jutland is crooning narcrotic Lorilies” or “Down there, as ish kabibbles / Schlepp the shade forever.” Bish Bosch has a higher density of words whose definitions I don’t know than probably any other piece of media I’ve ever consumed, and there’s evidence that many of the words are Joycean gibberish of Walker’s own devising. (“Narcrotic,” for example, used back-to-back in “Epizootics!” and “Dimple,” appears to be a made-up portmanteau of “necrotic” and “narcotic.”)
But even through the haze of general inscrutability you can tell Bish Bosch is preoccupied with decay. Decay of the body, of course, especially in “Corps De Blah,” but also decay of information like the Biblical contradictions skewered in “Tar,” or “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head’”’s series of morbid snapshots: microscopic scavengers (“bdelloid rotifers” in the lyric) swarming, Donald Rumsfeld (“Rummy”) jabbering smugly, and “a tiny laugh” that “dirties everything it touches.”
But I haven’t even mentioned the album’s 20-minute centerpiece “SDSS14+16B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” yet! It is, according to a press release in advance of Bish Bosch, about two “brown dwarfs”: Zercon, a “Moorish jester” in the court of Attila the Hun, and SDSS14+16B, the coldest known substellar body in the universe. Apparently, over the course of the song, the former climbs a flagpole and turns into the latter, or tries to, or imagines he does. But I struggle to think anyone could determine this on their own if the press release hadn’t laid it out so clearly. A substantial part of the lyric consists of schoolyard insults (“Does your face hurt? / ’Cause it’s killing me!”), mostly not so much sung as declaimed, and bathroom-wall scrawlings like “For a Roman / Who’s proof that Greeks fucked bears / V, V, IX, VII, V, IV, I” (the Roman numerals, of course, being a phone number).
It’s a little curious that so much of this monster track, skulking in the hollowed-out heart of Bish Bosch, is so utterly trivial. Most of Bish Bosch stares into the abyss, and boy does it stare back. In a way, “Zercon” does the same, but it also reassures us, with a wink: Don’t worry. Your grossness, your run-of-the-mill vulgarity and petty cruelty, these will live on long after you. And somehow even after all this hostility and nonsense, it’s affecting when Zercon leaves it below him and attains the solitude he apparently craved atop his lonely flagpole. The heterogeneous cacophony that he’s spent most of the song trying to escape drops out to be replaced by thin, asphyxiating high-pitched strings, and he wails, “It’s so cold / Infrared / What if I freeze / And drop into / the darkness?”
I found it affecting, anyway. Maybe you will too, or maybe you’ll find something else affecting about Bish Bosch, but whether positively or negatively or, more likely, some mixture of both, it will probably affect the shit out of you. That’s why, after being compelled by unknown forces to throw it on again recently, I was then compelled to crack open this thing I’d started writing about it three years earlier and finally finish it. Here it is. Give Bish Bosch a listen. I promise it will be unlike anything you’ve heard before.