Is it too early for a song about 9/11? Well, OK, there’ve been a lot of those, but it might still be too early for one that uses Elvis’ stillborn twin, Jesse Garon Presley, as a metaphor for the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Or is it just too late for Scott Walker to connect with anyone who expects to enjoy listening to music? That’s probably the most salient question raised by The Drift, Walker’s seven-years-in-the-making new record (his third in 22 years), and for a lot of people, forever wouldn’t be long enough to wait for “Jesse,” a dissonant, abstract response to the tragedy on which he often sounds like Tim Curry fronting Suicide. Walker evokes Jesse over Spartan strings. “Jesse are you listening?” he wails. “Six feet of foetus/Flung at sparrows in the sky.” The song climaxes with Walker bellowing, “I’m the only one left alive.” Toby Keith this is not.
But Walker devotees tend not to be unnerved by abstruse bleakness. This is, after all, the same man beloved by a long line of indie-rock greats for such maverick moves as an orch-pop song inspired by Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and quoting Camus in his liner notes.
Walker wasn’t always adored by avant-garde types—in fact, how he ended up with this audience is arguably one of the most interesting stories in pop music. Born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1943, he landed Broadway roles at 12 and moved to Los Angeles at 15, where he was taken under Eddie Fisher’s wing. He had little success as a crooner, however, and ended up a first-call bass player in the L.A. rock scene of the early ’60s. In 1964, producer/songwriter Jack Nitzsche brought him and two other session dudes together to form the Walker Brothers; unable to distinguish themselves commercially from stylish, good-looking boy groups such as the Buckinghams, the Brothers moved to London, where they became huge stars, notching several U.K. top 10 hits, including “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” which even charted back home.
After the Walker Brothers broke up, in 1967, Scott Walker (by now he’d taken the surname of his group) released a series of successful baroque pop records. By the late ’60s, he was hosting a popular self-titled show on the BBC despite possessing a deepening cynicism toward the music business. His earlier recordings had hinted at a darker side, but 1969’s Scott 4 ran headlong at that growing gloom and eventually became a cult object, the kind of record, that, along with Big Star’s Third, Skip Spence’s Oar, and Van Dyke Parks’ Discover America, has become a touchstone for music nerds is ignored by most everyone else.
Oddball country albums, glowing tributes from such prominent indie rockers as Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker, and one fairly adventurous indie CD (1995’s Tilt) filled Walker’s next three-and-a-half decades, and today we find the bard as unapologetically oblique as ever with The Drift. Opening track “Cossacks Are” is all cinematic dread, vague political allusions, and completely nonsensical B.S. After building tension with chugging guitars, ominous drums, and nerve-wracking strings, Walker cuts the evocative line “Cossacks are charging in/Charging into fields of white roses” with “That’s a nice suit/ That’s a swanky suit.”
“Cossacks Are” is a lot murkier than Scott 4’s similarly Russo-militaristic “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime),” a jaunty tune about the Soviet army quashing the Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia. That tune was explicit; now when Walker sings, “I’m looking for a good cowboy” in “Cossacks,” it’s hard to figure out whether he’s talking about anything at all.
Maybe he’s just gotten too good at set-dressing to pay that much attention to the words. Walker’s music has always been theatrical, even on his early solo albums, on which his dulcet voice provides an intriguing contrast to Jacques Brel’s mordant lyrics. On The Drift, he places long silences between tracks—the better to suggest pauses between acts of a play. He often delivers lines in a Robert Ashley monotone. And he employs sound effects: On “Clara,” the percussionist makes like Rocky on a side of pork in an overly-literal attempt to re-create the horrid scene of Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci’s bodies being desecrated in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. “Psoriatic” is bookended with the amplified sound of a pea rolling on the surface of a wooden box.
“A Lover Loves,” on the other hand, seems conventional at first. Walker’s voice is more like the golden croon of old. The instrumentation is gentle, if somewhat detuned, acoustic guitar. And then, Jesse help us, he proceeds to interrupt himself with 32 “psst”s.
But nothing in Walker’s past—or even in the early tracks of The Drift—can prepare the listener for the lunacy of “The Escape.” Again, the arrangement is minimal—plodding, reverbed drums, interminable cello drone strafed by fingernails-on-blackboard violins. Walker eerily intones “I wish I was in Dixie.” There is a cacophonous climax, and, for some reason, as the apocalypse he’s created wends toward mere tribulation, Walker begins singing in a cartoon duck voice. Yep, like Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” or fellow eccentric George Jones’ alternate persona, Deedoodle the Duck.
Is it an attempt at humor? If so, there’s nothing particularly funny about it. Mostly it just emphasizes how disconnected Walker is from his audience and how awful it is to be in the howling hell from which this album seems to have sprung. In a way, his refusal to offer the listener any way in is offensive—you don’t have to be a Keane fan to expect an artist to meet you at least halfway. Walker connects better with historical figures than with the people who buy his records, and his weird stabs at jokiness only make him seem more distant.
The Drift offers no release from its monolithic depression. To Walker, Jesse Garon Presley may be an adequate vessel for his anguish over 9/11 and the actions of his birth country’s government ever since. But to the rest of us, he never really comes close—Elvis’ twin, to whom the King talked to in his darkest hour, is as emotionally unavailable as Walker himself. After an hour and change of listening to Walker rage against a void whose nature he only hints at, you might wish you had someone to talk to, too. Preferably someone alive. CP