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Why sit in the dark handling yourself?

December 13, 2012

We need to talk about what a song is, and what a song can be. This subject perhaps sound tedious, but it isn’t. It’s thrilling. We need to have a big, long think about what Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch suggests about the song-form in general.

I’ve had a week to digest this body of work and here’s a sketch of some thoughts I’ve had about Bish Bosch, so far. I expect that I’ll go on having thoughts about this album because, like Tilt and The Drift before it, Bish Bosch will take a lot of processing. And because this is a record that stays heard, that haunts.


 “See You Don’t Bump His Head” is how it begins. And this opening song is bumpy, a pounding of drums contrary to the caution advised in the title. A footnote in the accompanying booklet tells us that the title is a line spoken by Montgomery Clift in From Here To Eternity, as Frank Sinatra’s corpse is carried off. Furthermore, this is actually a missing line, a line eventually cut from the film. (Cutting apart, cutting out texts and sounds, extracting chunks here and there, is key to Scott Walker’s compositional process.)

 You can hear Sinatra – the emotionally-neutral-with-flecks-of-morose Sinatra of In The Wee Small Hours, an album that insists upon its own loneliness, a man miserable in a room – you could hear this all throughout Scotts 1 through to 4 (“uneasy in my easy chair,” sang Frank; “the only sound to tear the night comes from the man upstairs,” sang Scott). Now here Sinatra’s just the now-silent corpse carted off. The singer’s fallen silent, the line’s cut out, Scott’s going on about “plucking feathers from a swan song” – there’s an awful lot of plucking or hacking away at song’s plumage in this record, so what’s left is song-meat and song-bones to be contorted or re-shaped in often violent ways, entrails examined. I remember a performance of Xenakis being described as “exfoliating”. These slabs exist, “suspended” as Scott and David Toop agreed about the voice in a recent interview, amongst passages of silence, empty air.

SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) is the album’s centre-piece, by some distance the longest song, and apparently the first-completed piece, the track that determined the character of the album at large. Zercon brings together images of suspension, existing precariously high above (the footnotes help out again here): a cold sub-stellar body, Saint Simeon on his pillar, the early 20th century fad of flagpole-sitting; vertiginous heights, but also scatological depths (how can you stoop so high?). The dominant voice is that of Attila the Hun’s deformed dwarf jester. It’s an amazingly coarse song, full of impressive outbursts like this:

No more
dragging this wormy anus
round on shag piles from
Persia to Thrace.

I’ve severed
my reeking gonads,

fed them to your
shrunken face.

which is a hell of a resignation speech (compare, perhaps, with Malcolm Tucker’s closing outbursts in the recent final episode of The Thick of It); this has been a good year for final expressions of disgust.)

There’s plenty else holding Zercon together: the numerals intermittently recited (I V I, V IX IX III etc…) signifying–what?–an ancient take on Roxy Music’s CPL593H refrain? Then there’s the clamour of rams-horns; after the meat and wooden box on The Drift, all the talk has been of farts and machetes this time around, but to me its these old testament animal-part noisemakers that make the maddest clamour.

There’s always a silence around the corner: Zercon is a jester, spitting out abusive (or self-loathing?) one-or-two liners but finding himself, as Walker himself explained it, “heckled by silence”: the voice is sent out into silence and darkness, supported by nothing. There’s something gloriously un-reassuring about these silences; the songs’ characters exist, like the people in Samuel Beckett’s radio work, as voices in a frightening darkness, out of which swarms of strings, clacking percussion, fizzing electronics may or may not emerge at any given moment.

Bish Bosch sees Scott becoming more Beckettian, also, in his lyrics’ unflinching bodily preoccupations. In childhood I had a friend who went through a phase: whenever he had a bruise on his arms or legs, would draw an outline around the bruise with a biro, and re-draw the line each morning so that his body was eventually just an obsessive chart of former damage.

These songs take violent, microscopic, slapstick-comic, invasive, biochemical approaches to the human carcase, making you realize how comparatively unbodily most supposedly visceral popular song really is. Take the closing image in Dimple, of a “lowering left-testicle night” and imagine how easily the following passage from Beckett’s Molloy might be filtered into Bish Bosch:

I had so to speak only one leg at my disposal, I was virtually one-legged, and I would have been happier, livelier, amputated at the groin. And if they had removed a few testicles into the bargain I wouldn’t have objected. For from such testicles as mine, dangling at mid-thigh at the end of a meagre chord, there was nothing more to be squeezed, not a drop. So that non che la speme il desiderio, and I longed to see them gone, from the old stand where they bore false witness, for and against, in the lifelong charge against me. For if they accused me of having made a balls of it, of me, of them, they thanked me for it too, from the depths of their rotten bag, the right lower than the left, or inversely, I forget, decaying circus clowns.

Bish Bosch finishes off, of course, with Scott’s Christmas song, in the form of a personality test taken by Nicolae Ceasescu (before? after?) his Christmas Day execution; the same scrutiny applied to the body is now applied, chillingly, to what I expect is called human character.


[Finally, this is probably as good a time as any to give an airing to my earlier illustration of Scott Walker punching a donkey in the streets of Galway.]



One Comment leave one →
  1. Alison permalink
    May 15, 2013 10:33 pm

    God I love how he sings those roman numerals. Randomly singing roman numerals like that is my new favorite hobby. I’d never heard that Roxy Music song. Wikipedia says CPL593H was the license plate of Bryan Ferry’s 1970 Mini Clubman. (I love my Mini so that’s interesting to me. I wonder if I could get it a fake license plate with roman numerals…)

    “I could talk talk talk talk talk myself to death
    But I believe I would only waste my breath”

    This lyric kind of bums me out because in the first song I ever recorded I had a line about how talking to myself was a waste of breath, and breath is rhymed with death. Oh well.

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