Deep in the heart of every Scott Walker fan – even those of us who enjoy the pig-slapping avant-garde weirdo Scott – there’s a lingering hope that one day he’ll go back to his roots and deliver another album’s worth of the swooning orchestral pop that made him famous. And, unlikely as it may seem today, in the years that followed 1995’s Tilt, there seemed to be a definite rapprochement between Walker and his earlier work.
First there was his lovely 1996 collaboration with The Bad Seeds on a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Threw It All Away’ (for the To Have & To Hold soundtrack); then, even more remarkably, he popped up on the soundtrack to the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, crooning his way through the jazzy ‘Only Myself to Blame’, which could easily pass as a Walker Brothers song. In 2001 he produced Pulp’s most lush, elegant album We Love Life. So when in 2004 he signed to 4AD, home of all things ethereal, there was considerable hope that he might actually release an album my poor mother could listen to without being reduced to a trembling wreck.
And what did we get? “A man came up towards the body and poked it with a stick/It rocked swiftly, and twisted around at the end of the rope”, accompanied by someone punching a slab of pork. Oh, Scott. Don’t ever change. The Drift is arguably Walker’s most complete artistic statement, an intense, exhausting, extreme record that marks the final realisation of a creative vision that began with The Walkers’ Nite Flights album, and which makes Tilt sound like a Heart FM staple.
Tilt was a bleak landscape across which echoes of Walker’s past drifted like anguished ghosts; The Drift is the sound of a man joyfully smashing his legacy to pieces and giving absolutely zero fucks. Opener ‘Cossacks Are’ may have a similar galloping rhythm to ‘We Came Through’, but there all similarities end, Walker howling about “medieval savagery, calculated cruelty” over an urgent, insistent guitar riff. It’s one of the most thrilling things he’s ever done and it sets the tone for an album hellbent on conveying the sickening brutality of the new century via sonic assault and lyrical horror.
Second track ‘Clara’ is The Drift in microcosm; it begins with electronic white noise which in turn gives way to pounding drums, screeching strings and the aforementioned porcine percussion, whilst Walker mutters an oblique account of the deaths of Mussolini and his mistress; ‘Jesse’ conflates the death of Elvis’s twin brother with the Twin Towers attacks over an ominous bass rumble, ending with Walker’s wail of “I’m the only one left alive…”; ‘The Escape’ lulls the listener into thinking it’s a moment of respite before a sudden maelstrom of drums and strings climaxes with Walker’s frankly terrifying Donald Duck impression; and the utterly unhinged ‘Jolson & Jones’ has Walker shouting “I’LL PUNCH A DONKEY ON THE STREETS OF GALWAY!”, said animal braying hysterically in the background.
Like its two predecessors, The Drift finishes with just Walker and a guitar, but whilst ‘A Lover Loves’ may be the album’s sole concession to melody and songcraft, even here Walker sabotages any sense of comfort by hissing “PSSSST! PSSSSST!” between lines.
Insane, ambitious and yes, pretentious (a good thing by the way), The Drift marks the point at which Walker finally exits the orbit of popular music and into a galaxy all of his own. It might not be a place where you’d want to spend a lot of time – The Drift is an album to admire and fear rather than enjoy and listen to on a regular basis – but it’s the culmination of probably the most extraordinary, transformative career arc in modern music.