Ambivalent Variations

By Michael Reid, 24 July 2013
Image: Still from Scott Walker's video for Epitzootics

Michael Reid submits to the hyper-saturated sound of Scott Walker’s recent album Bish Bosch




Hard to begin this, very. Hard to find the right touch, the incisive one, for the wavering, abetting it, retarding it, hard to find the right point, the listening point, the writing point. Walker waits for it, that's what he says. Then it can happen to him, though perhaps that is different now, perhaps this album is a little different, written more quickly, more professionally, now that this career is a career once again. That sounds like it intends a meanness. It does. It doesn't. It's not quite right. It's not right. This writer as a critic. I thought I'd get it out the way, the inevitable insult. That refrain of the press reviews, that Bish Bosch is an album you can respect but not enjoy. What an idea! What a very British opposition! It echoes Hume – philosophy is abandoned when you enter the dining room, or somesuch. It's like the backhanded compliments cribbed from reviews in 'Cossacks Are' on The Drift, statements such as 'A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind' and 'A nocturne filled with glorious ideas', yes, this last one especially. 'A nocturne filled with glorious ideas.' The 'idea' which, for the British, means something unrealised, lacking in being. You could almost write 'glorious failures'. And a 'nocturne' as well, something of the night, perhaps fragmented and useless as dreams; an abortion dissolved by the sun. You can respect it but not enjoy it. You can respect Bish Bosch because, objectively, it's an achievement. You can't enjoy it because, subjectively, it too much for you. You can respect it because of its 'brave', singular expression of subjectivity. You can't enjoy it because it doesn't conform to the objectivity of the consensus of what is listenable. There's a fault-line here in the critical relationship, a communitarian reserve, which is also a demand. It says, we are not worthy. It says, this is when I reach for my revolver. But it's strange. Listen to Bish Bosch. It has many moments that are clearly calculated to provoke enjoyment. In 'Phrasing', say, where the phrase 'Pain is not alone' is repeated with varied emphases over a spare song, a rock song, then this samba rhythm, then this sudden skipping dance. What? What else? In 'Corps de Blah' where a moment of machismo is lifted by an aching string canon, 'Dare step out on me, I'll step out on you. Bish Bosch, and what more are depositions for?' Ridiculous, and Walker knows, ridiculous drama. And in 'Epizootics!' there's a gorgeous flourish of trumpets ushering in a scene change, from a 'Hawaiian nightmare' to a world of hipster brawls on street corners, from sinister to swagger. But wait, it's not these moments, they're not talking about these moments, the critics, they talk about enjoying these moments. Of course, but as exceptions, not as enticements. Walker knows. That isn't to say they're without ambivalence, these moments. In 'Phrasing' it's an experience of pain that sees the whole universe in pain but cannot. In 'Corps de Blah' the deposition is an act of machismo, is a power-play, surely, truth-telling as power-play, surely. In 'Epizootics!' a vision of dread and creeping encroachment is flipped to unbridled physicality, to a delight in slang and fray for territories. There is always this uneasy or contradictory relationship between inside and outside. Walker seems strongly aware of the treachery of expression. But he's confident here. And he's dressing his enigmas with recognisable fragments of a sound-world they both recover and renounce. Ah, 'Epizootics!' is so exuberant, you want to dance it out, it's wonderful. 'Calculated to provoke enjoyment', that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it is, it isn't, it is.





When he was in a foul mood he would become abusive about other pop singers and say they had no talent. He'd say Tom Jones [to whom he was often compared] would lose his voice within five years if he carried on singing at that rate. He felt he screamed out his songs without putting any finesse into them.


On this particular night he was in such a bad mood that I didn't feel like sitting through two bottles of bourbon until he snapped out of it; I said it would be best if I left. He got angry and propped a chair under the door handle to stop me from leaving and then sat there in a typical Clint Eastwood-style pose, chewing a matchstick with his arms folded.


He just sat there glaring defiantly at me and rocking the chair back on two legs. But whenever he struck a pose it would often go totally wrong and, sure enough, the chair suddenly went out from under him, he landed on the floor in a heap and the matchstick got wedged in his gum. We both ended up laughing.


Irene Dunford, Scott Walker's girlfriend of the period circa 1965, speaking in 1993. From Scott Walker: A Deep Shade of Blue by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson.





Hard to speak about this. Bish bash bosh, ha! Perhaps if I could just speak simply. It's a nice dream, a hopeful one, not Bish Bosch, that there's this simplicity, this tantalising completeness, no. Sometimes when I'm listening to the album the feelings are clear. But it takes an age for any words to come and as soon as they do a struggle begins, language gnashing at the mute, throbbing, recalcitrant body. Perhaps it would take aeons for any resolution to this struggle and my body doesn't have that long. Am I still talking about Bish Bosch, towards Bish Bosch? Well, let's evade it yet. Something from earlier, the sixties, when he was a Walker Brother, still constructing the idea of what they were, still being constructed by the idea that people had of them, his idea in lights, the idea that glimmered in its shifting, constellatory form outside him, the idea put to work by himself, producers, managers, journalists, fans, gangsters, club owners, etc. etc. His idea in lights, he would plan lighting for their gigs so that it shone on them only the most fleeting spots, not shyness, no, hints of ideal, mystique, allure, flirtation, for straining eyes. Walker knew, he who once escaped a gig by persuading someone to drive them into a tree, he who was forced into hiding by the fans whose besieges made exposure impossible. He used to wear disguises or crash helmets in and out of venues. His sunglasses. This desired and reviled glamour, this reverberating against a screen. Trying to find a projection that would stick, trying to find in a projection a mouthpiece, trying to avoid its stupefactions, it excessive untruth, trying to court a power. This might be presumptuous. It's all in A Deep Shade of Blue. You have to be suspicious of A Deep Shade of Blue as soon as it engages in commentary but it collects some great anecdotes, naturally many with the aim of destroying its subject. Biographers can't help but try and destroy their subject, just as critics can't help but try and destroy theirs. Bish Bosch has on it a song called 'SSDS 1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter)', which starts with silence. SSDS 1416+13B is the name of a sub-stellar body discovered recently, the coldest in the solar system, a 'Brown Dwarf'. Zercon was an actual dwarf, a jester in the court of Atilla the Hun. At the beginning, the silence is heckling him. Silence, disconcerting in a rock song, disconcerting for the entertainer this song imagines. It's calling him out but there obviously can be no deposition here. He responds with retorting 'jokes' (sample: 'If shit were music, you'd be a brass band'). But it's calling him. He has a place in the court, a status, an altercatory but productive relationship. A relationship with what? Productive of what? He imagines the court as a toilet, with phone numbers inscribed on the walls in roman numerals for various grotesques of historical figures. 'He had two holes where a nose should be, and hobbled around on deformed feet,' say the liner notes. 'He had the sense to turn these deficiencies into assets and became a living legend,' say the liner notes. 'This is my job' Walker sings in a trembling voice against the silence that opens the song. Zercon wants to escape, towards what? A silence he can satisfy? He imagines his escape as a surge of liberation, casting off his 'little father', Atilla, a little man claiming a false sovereign height, escape from that domination, that revulsion, his own sense, his legend, 'No more dragging this wormy anus round on shag piles from Persia to Thrace'. He escapes, ascending and descending to various heights, trying to find the right point, the listening point, the speaking point. At one height imaginary eagles screech at him in the 'BAR! BAR! BAR!' caricature of language that was supposed to define the barbarian outsider. Elsewhere, Louis B. Mayer shouts at Saint Simeon, meditating at the top of a pillar, about his neglect of filial responsibilities. Elsewhere, people screaming Zercon's own jokes at him. Everywhere still the court in some form, society, everywhere still himself, and noise, taunting, echoing, provoking and interrupting him. Or else some hope from down below, an 'unfinished rumour', the lure of being part of its completion, 'Oblivion, driven from the city street by street' but even this a taunt, becoming 'screams of laughter, the pissing stench of mares-milk beer'. The silence taunts him differently. But he escapes that too. At the end, his retorts, now pertaining to disappearance (sample: 'You know; I think you've got nothing there'), are no longer answered by silence but by a funereal drum. And then he becomes the 'Brown Dwarf' of the title, the song ending with a shiver: 'It's so cold, Infrared. What if I freeze, and drop into the darkness?' The music falls away and its the last pose thrown and it's a bad pun, sure, what Zercon becomes, but it still haunts me, his fear of being interrupted, now there's nothing else to interrupt him, his flight, his failure. The last pose, that won't collapse into laughter and relief. Or the pose that goes too far, past the point of no return, 'the point that must be reached' as Kafka said, the waverer. But incompleteness still. Frances May Morgan said of the silences on this album that 'they are not deep and warm' but 'anechoic in character, the end point of a process of shutting down'. End points? Cold, perhaps, neutral, sure, blank, yes. They were recorded in digital, while the rest of the album was also recorded in analogue. End points? Against which a voice...





A terrible weariness fills the soul of my heart. I feel sad because of whom I never was, and I don't know with what kind of nostalgia I miss him. I fell, with every sunset, against my hopes and certainties.


-- Text 194 from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa


You see, your sound and your style are in many ways what you are. There's not a lot else in the world that identifies what you are, if anything at all – a self of any kind.


Well people say [the early and the late periods] are worlds apart and in a lot of ways they are, but you can find a thread, I think, of character, probably from early on. I used to write B sides for The Walker Brothers for money, and I wrote this song called Archangel. I used an organ in a cinema in Leicester Square. Obviously it's different soundwise but there's a character link...


The interviewer asks him if this is in relation to the 'block of sound' he likes to use:


No, I think an inner style, an inner character style within a human being – the kind of thing they are trying to get at that runs through all their life. It's some little thing inside you and later on it expands from that little thing. You don't really see it clearly [with me] till something like Climate of Hunter.


-- Scott Walker, speaking to Mike Barnes in The Wire, issue 346





Incompleteness, how much there was you saw but couldn't say. How long will they keep believing your excuses? Incompleteness, it's never over. 'Over, it's over' sings Walker as Zercon, desiring disappearance, but the song goes on calling him forth, up, out, back. The song won't let him go, even at the end, though its about to, it's perilous, he's left there hanging. Calling forth, the desire to create something complete enough to live, incomplete enough to go on living, even in elegy. The desire to put a bit of your life into something. Urgh, 'self-expression', the critic recoils. Rightly. Almost rightly. Walker is highly aware of the treachery of expression. It's not about something that's reducible to the self, as is the phenotype supposedly to the genotype, its not about autobiography, its not about a code. It starts with Climate of Hunter, he says. 'This is how you disappear', the opening line on that album. A new reserve, an otherwordliness. A thread that runs all the way to Bish Bosch, which is almost worldly, which isn't worldly, which has a confidence buoyed perhaps by proper recognition, at last, but is ever attentive to failure, which seeks to incorporate its own failure. Frances May Morgan again, in a perceptive review, a specious review, with a paradox: 'The album's evocation of failure comes with a disclaimer that the album is too important to fail.' Too important, too grand, too excessive, its precision, its 'opulent' details, its completeness. You can respect it but not enjoy it? Not quite, though there is something here of what seethes in that 'respect'. How can something so saturated evoke failure? But if it can't it fails, and so, regress. It succeeds if it fails and fails if it succeeds if it fails. It would be easy to step out of this, in a way. But perhaps the album can't quite escape such a paradox. Perhaps, in fact, this is one of the motors of its excess, its vitality constantly ironised constantly vitalised, its frequent giddiness, drunk on power, trembling with fear. The songs lurch back and forth between frenzy and suspension. Nowhere more wildly than in 'Corps de Blah', where a soft hymn erupts into a sequence of scenes, in which a succession of images, many of the body in states of distension, collapse, intoxication, degradation, embedded all in odd arrangements, 'Simitar sideburn charging on the purple purlieus, scrape to Goitre's gray carnation through the stubble'. Uncontrollable bodily movements, growths, a body's foul decorations. Then moments where the body totters into life, harnessed in a brief dance, 'We'd slosh, we'd slide, we'd cling round a kelloggs floor', as fart sounds accompany drum-sticks setting waltz time. Or the aforementioned moment of cynical machismo, 'Dare step on me, I'll step out on you', the body suddenly bold but ridiculous. Not much bass on this song or in the album, not much bass to ground it. Walker has long constructed songs out of associations, one image giving rise to another, a loose analogue that resonates dreamlike. Here, there is a delirium of associations, restless, compressed, ever shifting away from themselves, 'Epicanthic knobbler of ninon, arch to Macaronic mahout in the mascon'. A love of words, of their determinations, a desire to float on their indeterminacies. There is a danger of vagueness here, a danger of being dispersed by language. An excess of meaning to the point of opacity, spectral incompleteness. The puns in the album's title. Walker knows but its uneasy. 'Corps de blah', italics mine. The pleasure gained by investing the body with language, releasing the body into language, is tempered by doubt. By a sinister presence. 'The Chiseller keeps slipping away', he sings at the end of the opening, 'slipping' not 'chipping', gross, away at the body, sure, but maybe also at the words clumping together to try to stand up, tottering. Or by an ineffectual presence. 'The Chiseller' might carve out a purposeful body, not merely subject to the random variations of nature and other forces, agency, but disappearing, 'slipping away'. There're distant sounds of hammer on metal accompanying this line, echoed by a great metallic swishing sound after the final line of the song: 'Double-bladed ax poised over shoulder.' Who wields this? An action, poised. Incompleteness, the self that never was, except in a few songs, except in this other world. Walker's most fully realised failure, there is further to go. I seem to be coming to a close, at a semi-arbitrary point, always so, a word-limit or a point of fatigue or a moment where the world intervenes, with so many threads still hovering, fit to hang myself with. You let it go, a failure. Incompleteness, we will never finish listening to these songs. I'm relieved to return to this album as a listener, without any longer the impetus to speak. But is this relief a failure?




From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

-- Hokusai, from the postscript to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji



Michael Reid <michaeldavidreid AT> writes when he can, thinks when it’s possible and has no prestige. He lives in London



Scott Walker, Bish Bosch, 4AD., 2012