Pop music often doubles as youth worship, so we don’t yet have a huge sample size of careers morphing over four or five decades. Scott Walker, a pop smash in the 60s and an uncompromising experimentalist in his 60s, is reclusive bordering on mythic. His latest record, Bish Bosch, is the third in a recent triad that’s deepened his legacy as a cult hero, darkening the sad beauty and vivid low-life stories of his early albums to a pitch black of cruel absurdity. Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger hiding away for years to make a record as bleak and demanding as The Drift or Bish Bosch is as unthinkable as Scott Walker showing up at the Olympics to belt out “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).” Dylan, still restless enough to be composing 14-minute elegies for the Titanic in 2012, is a closer comparison, but his sound isn’t this contemporary, his forms aren’t this radical, and his croak has nothing on Walker’s enduring croon.
A middle age in which a pop singer is elevated to unquestioned genius holds some drawbacks. Bish Bosch is a difficult listen. It’s impossible to relax to, challenging to sample casually. It demands that you stay right there with it, even in distaste. Hearing “Corps de Blah” digress into actual fart noises, registering Walker’s line about feeding you his severed “reeking gonads” recalls fat Marlon Brando in his Last Tango in Paris bathtub, being “seductive” by talking about “the farts of a dying pig”—the same scrunched-up yuck face greets both. Personal expression without limits often ends unpleasantly. Walker’s current writing process starts with his ornate lyrics and then adds loose orchestration, digital chirps, blaring horns, slasher-flick strings, industrial beats or ominous metal guitars to them, plus lots of suffocating silence. It’s Walker’s lonely croon, still handsome but now straining, that’s the listener’s lifeline. But on a record primarily concerned with dense puns, it provides no real comfort. His surreal lines hang in the air, refuse to follow each other, delight in nonsense or perversity. How many words here have never been sung on a record before? How many have never been spoken aloud? During the album’s 21-minute apex, “SDSS 1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter),” about Attila the Hun’s favorite Moorish dwarf jester, Walker reads from the joke book of a 50s insult comic with rising, humorless venom. Old jokes have seldom been this distressing.
And yet… there's a vitality here that demands if not appreciation then at least acknowledgment. The record can be startling, legitimately frightening. When his voice rises to psychotic shriek on “SDSS,” it finds a fury that a young malcontent like Prurient could envy. There’s also the gentle Christmas sleigh bells of the closing track and the Hawaiian guitar strum that quietly ends “Epizootics!” It’s a record that counters the assumption that intense, repeated listening is the key to cracking impenetrable work. Bish Bosch may function better as a single theatrical experience, alive in its ability to surprise, its peculiar lack of pleasure resulting in something like awe.