The particular vein of willfully obscure music Scott Walker mines on The Drift goes back to Belgian depressive Jacques Brel, whose songs Walker covered extensively in the second or third phase of his career, depending on where you start counting. Do you begin in the late 1950s, when Walker, then known as Scott Noel Engel, made a failed bid for Frankie Avalon/Fabian-style teen-idol stardom? Or do you start in 1964, when Phil Spector co-conspirator Jack Nietzsche rechristened Engel and two unrelated men the Walker Brothers and shipped them off to England where, singing over second-rate “wall of sound” backing tracks, they were, briefly, almost as popular as the Beatles? Regardless, Walker’s first solo album, Scott, released in 1967, must have raised a few eyebrows, featuring as it does Walker crooning like Tony Bennett about such decidedly un-teenage topics as his own death (in Brel’s straight-forwardly titled “My Death”). Unlike Brel, who mellowed some with age, Walker has grown progressively more obscure, as evidenced by 1995’s confounding Tilt and its follow-up, The Drift, the most elaborately impenetrable album we’re likely to hear this decade.
To describe The Drift in typical record-review terms would do it a grave disservice; like Nico on her weirdly similar The Marble Index, Walker is operating here on a totally different area than, to be somewhat cruel, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The album starts with a throbbing Killing Joke-inspired drumbeat and the basically un-decodable couplet “A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind/ A noble debut tracking vertiginous demands.” It wraps up more than one hour and eight minutes later with Walker’s take on a fireside ballad: “One hand that is cold in another colder/ Psst, psst, psst/ And everything within reach.” In between we get a love song from Mussolini to his mistress (“Clara,” with “percussion and meat punching” by Alasdair Malloy), a six-minute mind-fuck (“Jesse”) that explores 9/11 via Elvis’s relationship with his stillborn identical twin, a critique of organized religion (“Jolson + Jones”) complete with the sounds of asses braying, and “Hand Me Ups,” for which “The pee-pee soaked trousers/ The torn, muddied dress” serves as the refrain (Ralph Warman, Rebecca Painter, and Lucy Painter are credited for “Children Scream Vocals”). Through it all, Walker’s voice is at its Sinatra-on-downers best. The soundscapes are appropriately and almost unremittingly bleak: a musical abyss that, by comparison, makes the Cure‘s Disintegration sound like new-jack swing.
Is it all pretentious? Absolutely, in the same appealingly puffed-out way as the rest of Walker’s solo work. Listenable? Only on those nights when you’re alone in your room with a glass of whiskey. Worth the effort? Yes, but only for the folks who actually finished Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, as we have to figure Jacques Brel did. He was Scott Walker’s kind of guy.
The Drift Web site (audio/video)
4AD Web site