Arts and Culture

Scott Walker's Bigger than the Beatles

New album 'Bish Bosch' provides unsettling evidence.

By Adrian Mack 6 Dec 2012 |

Adrian Mack contributes a regular music column to The Tyee and frequently sits behind Rich Hope.

Paul McCartney was in good voice at BC Place two weeks ago, but you should get a load of Scott Walker. At 69, the one-time pop superstar sounds almost full-throated as he ever did on "Epizootics!," the first release from his new album, Bish Bosch. Maybe it was the reported diet of vitamins and booze that preserved his vocal chords, back when Walker was trying to get through his own nightmarish hard day's night.

There are few stories in popular music stranger than Scott Walker's. For a spell, the American émigré and his two bandmates in the Walker Brothers actually outsold the Beatles. But Scott Walker despised the fame, developed stage fright, and retreated into solo work, producing four towering albums in a row -- all called Scott -- that revealed a musical intelligence that exceeded even his remarkable voice and golden boy good looks.

By the time he made his first masterpiece, Scott 4 (1969), Walker had perfected his persona; a heady mix of night club crooner, avant gardist, and bedsit intellectual. He waged a solitary war against the dippiness of the era, while his sales plummeted and the screaming teenagers were left to puzzle over references to Camus and Ingmar Bergman, not to mention his infatuation with Jacques Brel. Forty-three years later, it's hard to believe that something like "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" is the work of a blue-eyed pop God still in his 20s -- yet there it is, sounding more magnificent than ever.

I've seen the effect those four records have on people time and time again. On first listen, most are confused and dismiss it as lounge music. Then it starts to get under their skin, then they notice the lyrics, and then they become obsessed. Happens every time. If you're a newb, the Scotts will help to prepare you for the complex and terrifying sonic structures that came with Walker's uncompromising artistic rebirth in the late '70s, when he emerged from a fog of indifferent Walker Brothers reunion and solo albums. Which brings us to Bish Bosch, the third in a trilogy of recordings that began in 1995 with Tilt, and which continued in 2006 with an even scarier set called The Drift.

Describing Walker's contemporary work is futile, and trying to parse its meaning even more so. Just listen, and rest assured that the effort Walker put into it probably came close to killing him (you'll live, maybe.) In a now notorious scene from the 2006 documentary 30 Century Man, we actually see the fiercely modern (and extremely private) artist at work, coaching a percussionist on how to properly punch a side of beef until it sounds just right. Such is Scott Walker's Kubrickian attention to detail. It's why the Old Man only comes back again once every 10 years or so, and why we should really take advantage of it when he does.  [Tyee]

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