You know Scott. Toothsome Europhile American with a stirring baritone. Sang classy downbeat ’60s pop. Waltzed with Brel on four magnificent, eponymous records. Briefly a light-entertainment TV star. Released the industrial, nihilistic Tilt in 1995. Disappeared, resurfacing only to produce Pulp, curate a festival and record a song for a sub-standard Bond movie. One of pop’s most revered hermits.
Naturally, his first new record in ten years comes with an unfair burden of expectation and/or dread. And physically at least, The Drift is exactly what you might expect. A matte-black cover spattered with Rothko red. A lavish booklet sprinkled with cryptic lyrics spatially arranged with the attention to kinetic detail of ee cummings:
‘Stars led to sky/ lash led to eye/ herpes to clit/ then stopped.’
‘Rabbi crater/ keyed for action/ hits the marks.’
‘The chair had/ been shifted/ ever so slightly/ say/ five feet or/ two centimetres.’
‘Cossacks Are’ opens with surprising force. A high-pitched drone. A chiming double-helix of tremolo-laden guitar. Bass and drums grind out a galloping, desperate rhythm. Walker’s voice arrives, intoning ‘A moving aria for a vanishing state of mind’, as an incongruous operatic howl, trading his former sonorous powers for tremulous melodrama. He’s a Dadaist Orbison singing about torsos and cowboys for a minimalist Jesus Lizard. It’s profoundly unsettling – and by far one of most straightforward of the album’s ten songs.
The majority of the tracks are dense, amorphous nightmares, remarkable for their intensity, if not their accessibility. Monstrous mosaics assembled from atonal drones, merciless percussion, subliminal whispers, unexpected bursts of shore-leave jazz. When the massed onslaught of pounding drums, violently woozy strings and meat-slapping arrives in ‘Clara’, the visceral horror of it is astonishing even after repeated listens. But the arrival of the female voice representing the title character, Mussolini’s mistress, is even more jarring in its elegiac beauty.
In many ways this is an even more dark and vicious record than Tilt, but there’s bizarre humour in there too, in Walker’s infantilised use of ‘pee-pee’, the repeated declarations of his intent to assault an Irish donkey, even a Donald Duck impression. Just as baffling is the closing track, ‘A Lover Loves’, a relatively welcoming and upbeat 120 seconds of guitar, voice and some of the album’s most absurd lyrics. It is, apparently, ‘…a waltz for a dodo, a samba for Bambi…a polka for Tintin’.
So does it work? Is it Un Chien Andalou on record, a perfection of the art of the uncanny, the unknowable terror within? A bewildering mishmash of random signifiers of gloom? The most remarkable and unforgettable record you’ll hear all year? Most likely, it’s all three.
(originally written for Beard magazine. unpublished)