30th Century Man: Scott Walker's Second Act Continues With 'Bish Bosch'

Scott Walker has released four solo albums in the last 30 years. The first three were each separated by more than a decade—Climate of Hunter in 1984, Tilt in 1995, The Drift in 2006—and gradually shifted away from progressive, offbeat pop toward something even headier, more iconoclastic, and ultimately uncategorizable. Walker's music from the last decade barely resembles anything that could be called pop or rock, but it doesn't much resemble anything else, either. The brand-new Bish Bosch, released earlier this month on 4AD, appears just six years after The Drift, but it's no rush job; it's a meticulous, intelligent, and generally stupefying addition to what has already been one of the most remarkable second acts in pop-music history.

The conventional account of Walker's career goes something like this: former '60s teen idol, stung by critical dismay and commercial indifference, retreats from the spotlight and emerges a decade or so later as an eccentric composer of impenetrable, perhaps pretentious, avant-rock. That timeline is roughly correct, but it underestimates the artistic and emotional depth present in Walker's early pop and overestimates the difficulty of his most recent albums. He was a teen heartthrob, but a very odd one. And Bish Bosch is a challenging listen, to be sure, but not a difficult one—it's hypnotic, funny, ridiculous, frightening, and unforgettable. And inviting, too. Its charms won't be found in unraveling the code of its lyrics or uncovering its musical reference points, but in simply giving yourself over to the 69-year-old Walker's somnolent baritone and idiosyncratic melodic sensibility, and the unpredictable rhythms that push and pull underneath them.

Walker's career began in the mid-1960s, when he was a member of the pop trio the Walker Brothers. (None of them were brothers, or named Walker; Walker's real name is Scott Engel.) The group was, for a brief period, enormously popular in England, but the Walker Brothers took more inspiration from Hal David and Burt Bacharach than the Beatles—their melancholy 1966 hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," first recorded by Frankie Valli, matched Brian Wilson and Phil Spector for operatic teen-angst and romantic grandeur. Walker's weird streak got even more entrenched on his earliest solo albums, from 1967–69, where he recast Jacques Brel and the European art-song tradition for the British pop charts, to—no surprise—diminishing commercial returns.

But the first real signs of the second phase of Walker's career showed up on the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion album, Nite Flights. The four songs of chilly but intense guitar rock that Walker wrote for that disc bridge the distance between Roxy Music and new wave, and gave Walker a new creative framework. On his next two solo albums, Climate of Hunter and Tilt, Walker refined that sound, to almost suffocating effect.

Eleven years later, The Drift was a surprise, even for listeners accustomed to the unexpected from Walker. A dense, quasi-orchestral cycle of half chamber music/half art rock, the album features songs about Mussolini's execution ("Clara") and Elvis' stillborn twin brother ("Jesse"); its unusual production credits include "meat punching" and "children scream vocals."

Bish Bosch seems like the logical extension of The Drift. The nine compositions here are only songs in the loosest sense—there's nothing as simple as a verse or chorus, and most of Walker's lyrics, which touch on mutilation, astrophysics, folklore, and fart jokes, don't rhyme. His vocals are unmoored from the music, following their own precise logic. The main instrumentation is heavy—guitars, strings, horns, and brutish drumming—but much of Bish Bosch is defined by Walker singing with minimal accompaniment. Bish Bosch is, in fact, pop music only by association—it's by Scott Walker, and it's on a rock label. The insistent drumbeat and musclebound guitar riff on opening track "‘See You Don't Bump His Head'" seem to comment on the association, with quotation marks. The disc verges, at times, on self-parody, as if Walker is pre-emptively defending himself against charges of taking himself and his music too seriously.

Bish Bosch also seems like it's perhaps the conclusion of Walker's most recent musical explorations. On the new album, Walker chooses space and silence—a sense of cosmic dread, and of a journey at its end—over The Drift's stifling, hot-house phantasmagoria. Like The Seer, the recent masterpiece from Michael Gira's resurrected Swans, it feels like a trip to the very limit of music, and it's hard to imagine what could possibly come after it.

If that all sounds off-putting, it shouldn't be. Bish Bosch isn't so much a personal expression of existential fear as a work of creativity and imagination about the abyss that all of us face. In the essential 2006 documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, Walker comes across as a working artist, a surprisingly normal guy whose job it is to make this emotionally and philosophically loaded music. It's a job he's uniquely suited for—he even begins the 21-minute Bish Bosch centerpiece "SDSS1416+13B [Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter]" with the line "This is my job."