Many years ago my mum came down to London for a few days to stay with me in my flat. A couple of days into her stay I returned from work to find her sitting bolt upright on the couch with a decidedly anxious look on her face. “I listened to one of your CDs” she said. “It was… horrible”. Further questioning revealed that, during my absence, she’d decided to listen to some music and had looked through my music collection to find something mum-friendly, and had spotted a Scott Walker CD. Unfortunately said CD was not After the Lights Go Out – The Best of the Walker Brothers, or one of Scotts 1-4. It was his bleak, impenetrable 1995 album Tilt. She’d got about halfway through before giving up any hope of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” making an appearance and turning it off. The following morning she told me she’d been awake half the night after seeing the ghost of a man hanging from my living room ceiling, caught the next train back to Coventry, and never returned.
I suspect Scott, if he heard that story, would cackle and rub his hands with delight, as few other artists over the years have set out to disturb and disorientate their listeners with such evident glee. Since that 1995 comeback, his entire career seems to have been dedicated to erasing his 1960s/70s work from memory, both ours and his own – fragments of orchestra and strings suddenly drowned out by atonal noise and crashing percussion have become a common and highly symbolic motif in his work, while he now sings in a quavering soprano, as if to distance himself as much as possible from the rich baritone that made him famous. Even when he does create a moment of genuine beauty, such as “A Lover Loves” from The Drift, he can’t help himself from sabotaging it by hissing “PSSSST! PSSSSST!” all over it.
And now comes the latest accidental kick in the bollocks for those who would love to see him make an album with the likes of Tindersticks or Neil Hannon, a collaboration with frankly terrifying, cowl-clad, arse-quaking drone merchants Sunn0))). It’s as if Scott scoured the entire world of popular music looking for the band least likely ever to profess a liking for Jacques Brel. So pork-pounding avant-gardist meets bowel-shaking drone metal – it’s going to be pretty fucking hardcore, right? It’s going to make Bish Bosch sound like Mumford & Sons, surely?
Well, no. My preview copy arrived with an email from 4AD’s press office wishing me “Happy listening!”, which I initially thought was taking the piss somewhat, but this is actually the most enjoyable and accessible album Walker has made in a long, long time. OK, Pitbull’s people aren’t likely to be getting in touch any time soon, and my mum wouldn’t have liked it, but Soused is much easier on the ear than his last two albums and is rich in moments of beauty and humour.
Indeed, for the first few seconds of opening track “Brando” – Walker crooning “Ah, the wide Missouri!” atop twinkling orchestral backing – we’re almost in Scott 3 territory, until that unmistakeable Sunn0))) drone hits you in the gut (by the way, is it just me, or have Sunn0))) based their whole career on the opening few seconds of The Bluetones’ “Cut Some Rug”?) and the bullwhip begins cracking (provided, fact fans, with typical Walkerian attention to detail not by samples or sound effects, but by Peter Gamble, Britain’s leading bullwhip expert). And yet neither the song, nor the album, are all about Sunn0))) – only in the last 4 minutes of “Bull” do they really get the studio to themselves. This is defiantly Walker’s album and his musicians are frequently challenged to match the vocal fireworks and intensity on display – a voice that sounded cracked and on the verge of exhaustion back in 1995 sounds totally reinvigorated here.
“Herod 2014”, Soused’s epic centerpiece, is where that voice and those guitars mesh to best effect, Walker’s disturbing poetic images (“She’s hidden her babies away…bubonic blue blankets run ragged with church mice…”) led by howling axe mayhem and squealing saxophone to a climax that raises the hairs on the back of my neck every time. It’s an utterly extraordinary piece of music.
Sunn0))) get to bring the metal on “Bull”, squealing riffs and pounding drums accompanying Walker’s often hilarious lyrics (“Woke nailed to cross…could not give toss”/”Leapin’ like a Riverdancer’s nuts”) and a chorus of “BUMP THE BEAKY!” which strangely brings to mind Keith Michelle and Hissing Sid. “Fetish” is an absolute riot of a tune – yes tune – with Walker singing about “spunk-stiffened tresses” on top of a monster riff and distorted trumpets (courtesy of Guy Barker, making him, I believe, the first person ever to collaborate with both Sunn0))) and Kajagoogoo.) Closing track “Lullaby” is Walker at his most mischievous, accompanying Sunn0)))’s barely-there drone with sarcastic nostalgia for the good old days (“Why don’t minstrels go from house to house howling songs the way they used to?…Why don’t painters paint their cloudy spires chiaroscuro the way they used to?”), before closing with a tongue-in-cheek appeal to the listener:
will pass among
will be empty
The most intimate
central to your
will be sung.
Oh Scott, you’re spoiling us. No, really. Soused is his most enjoyable album since 1984’s Climate of Hunter, and one of the absolute peaks of an already Himalayan career. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you may at certain volumes even need to go to the toilet. All bases are covered on this, the hugest, most monolithic album of 2014. Custodiant migremus, old fella.