The sloppiness of Scott Walker’s new album is built into its title. Bish Bosch is bish bosh — a thankless task done in a slapdash way. And, sure, by Scott Walker’s standards, six years is a relatively short time to piece together a new record. But a bish is also slang for bitch, a misbirth, a botched birth, and Hieronymus Bosch is, of course, a painter of botched worlds. And, boy, has Walker really bitched it this time — nine new astounding abominations, nine new non-songs, bastards all, hymns without harmony, sheer discordia, and, lyrically, nothing but beasts, buggeries, and decapitations. But, as we all know, life’s a bish, and to bitch is to gripe. At 69 years old, Walker seems just warming up with this 73-minute old-man’s rant, a long-winded and often incoherent complaint against men, women, kids, politicians, history, time and space, and the moon and the stars. It’s really all just a lot of pish posh. Pish posh, scoffs the gentleman, scoffs Walker the fake Brit, I call you on your bullshit. But, then again, this is no gentleman, just a wino, a wash-up, a fallen (teen) star, with barely a pot to piss in. And pish posh, of course, wears its degenerate etymology proudly, referring nicely to a foreign stew, a polyglot porridge, and so it all comes down to slop again — an album full of wheezes, farts, burps, and brays. “If music were shit,” goes one track, “you’d be a brass band.”
Walker claims that Bish Bosch is the third album in a trilogy that includes Tilt and Drift, but the music itself suggests that the entire edifice has crumbled. With its silly jokes and obscene noises, its cacophony of samba rhythm, stoner rock, and cool jazz, Bish Bosch immediately comes across as more chaotic, more whimsical, even clownish in places. Lyrically, it seems less preoccupied with violence and tyranny than with the themes of rot and decay, the inevitable sloppiness of the aging body, of everyday language, and of history and politics. Instead of tackling his topics slantways, via the skewed, yet driven perspective of the cracked artist-genius, Walker appears here in full slapstick-schizoid mode, each song a decentered slop of rhythm and tone. Instead of the manic wall of sound that marked his earlier efforts, a barrage of noise and rhythm driven toward the same inevitable disaster, Bish Bosch is framed by the groundless ground of its own silence, an overwhelming nothingness out of which any sonic something — a fart, a falsetto, a fascist command — might emerge and dissolve. The songs on Bish Bosch sprawl out in the empty air like Calderesque mobiles composed of bat shit and avian phlegm. They soar high and low at the same time — you might be tuning in to the music of the spheres or you just might be listening to the grostulations of an anus.
There’s not a single theme or category by which the album can be fully evaluated and mastered. There’s not a single appeal to high or low, left or right, right or wrong by which a listener could cut a clear path through its cosmic slop. And yet, everywhere, system and pattern persist. Just as, musically, the album suddenly spits up a bit of Gregorian chant or a ukulele ditty, so, too, lyrically, it finds momentary shape in the fall of the Roman empire, astronomy, hipster slang, or microcellular biology. Like, perhaps, Finnegans Wake or Pound’s Cantos, it ceaselessly enacts its own structural construction and collapse, and thereby models the creation and decay of all systems. In fact, despite Walker’s avant-garde pretentions, Bish Bosch demands not much more than a connection to Wikipedia and a microscope. To listen to the album is to leave the romantic realm of high art and enter the base world of gynozootics and epizootics — cross-species miscegenation and ceaseless viral dissemination, organic drift and decay as the precondition of any creative life. Here, finally, the gloom of creative madness gives way to the freewheeling world of science — songs about amino acids, bacteria, germ cells, and multiplying rotifers. “Here’s to a lousy life!” Walker sings at the end of “Corps de Blah,” and he means it literally. The louses will win in the end, and, thankfully, we’re all just louses.
The Decaying Body
Scott Walker is old, and Bish Bosch plays out like an endgame. Even the first track comes across as his last. Backed by a pummeling drumbeat, it opens with the ominous refrain “while plucking feathers from a swan song” and then catalogues all the sweet shame and horror of aging. One by one, the singer plucks his own feathers, so that, in the end, the beautiful swan emerges as a cooked goose, its hideous body exposed like an “incontinent singing Scarpia.” The sacred becomes its own profane double, as “shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines,” and death is exposed at the very core of life, a “tiny laugh” that “dirties everything it touches.” And yet, even in decline, Walker seems as vital as ever. Bish Bosch often sounds like bad prognosis — get ready for indigestion, back problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. — and yet here the body in decline provides a new energetic model for the body of song itself. Take “Corps de Blah,” with all its offensive wheezes and drippings and gastric rumbles. The song begins with an unholy aria to an “old egg” and then shifts to a slow metal dirge followed by, in turn, a cracked waltz of the farts, some migraine-inducing glissandi, a spine-cracking clarion call, and a disorienting stoner rock interlude, each sick mode decaying into the next. Over time, the graceful dance of the “Corps de Ballet” gives way to the corrupt “Corps de Blah,” a “eukaryotic gavotte,” tune without tone, song without organs. Lyrically, Walker sings first to a “Scabby Sachem” and then a “Sagamore wino,” seeing in each fallen chief a sublime image of his own dispossession and mortality. “A sphincter’s tooting our tune,” he whines, “If only ‘I’ could pick you./ Wed slosh, wed slide,/ wed cling.” Again, though, the decline of the “I” is also apparently its own sloppy liberation — physical corruption everywhere suggests artistic creativity. As we’re reminded in a later song, “syrinx” is both a fluid-filled cyst that painfully afflicts the spinal cord and a chaste nymph who, according to legend, had been transformed into the first set of panpipes.
Walker’s attention to the sounds of the dying body (“booty chatter” as body-chatter) no doubt reflects his larger Bukowskian obsession with violence and depravity. Here, though, it signals less the romance of evil than a clear-eyed and even scientific grappling with the posthuman corpus. As Walker explained in a recent interview with The Wire, “I have in the past done a lot with the body because it keeps everything — kind of a bad word — existentially concentrated within an un-human situation.” On Bish Bosh, too, getting old involves getting beyond the human. The perspective of the album shifts between not just the sublime and the lowly, but also the macroscopic and microscopic, gazing wide-eyed on those amoral multicellular systems that everywhere precede and exceed the human corpus. The song “Phrasing,” for example, traces a vast web of chemical agents and compounds, “a protein moon in a protein sky, running protein fields with my protein eye.” Walker, as if copping the pages of A Thousand Plateaus, even intones of “a protein song howling through the protein meat.” The song’s refrain — “Pain is not alone” — gives an ethical spin to its biochemical vision. Misery loves company, sure, but pain here becomes an extra-human interface between bodies, regions, and cultures, turning its sufferer into an object and thus part of a vast network of cosmic cause and effect. In fact, as the song shifts rhythm from verse to verse, Walker marvelously shifts the phrasing of his refrain, so that it also appears as a mutating germ cell (a “riff meme,” to borrow from Frank Gunderson), sporing across space and time via the “protein bods” it sets to dancing.
The Decaying Empire
As goes the body of man, so goes the body of empire. Walker has always flirted with dictators and tyrants, but Bish Bosch is all about degeneracy and decline. It may in fact be his first post-national album, because — as with the fallen sachems and sagamores mentioned above — his focus here is finely tuned to the tattered ends and cross-cultural drift of empire. Walker sets the album’s centerpiece — the 22-minute long “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter)” — in the court of Attila the Hun, but the song constellates the last days of several famed empires: Greek, Roman, Hun, Gaul, Brit, and American. Here, again, paradox abounds — the height of power is also its eminent decline. “Your Helipolis is a scrapheap,” Walker sings, equating the stretch of empire with the rise of bestiality and buggery. In turn, we meet “Lavinia who goes like gynozoon,” “Grosse Gauls who won’t leave our sheep alone,” and a “Roman who’s proof that Greeks fucked bears.” In Attila’s depraved court, the evening’s entertainment is provided by a Moorish dwarf jester named Zercon (more on him below) who, with his missing nose and deformed feet, mocks his masters for their ugliness and depravity. Zercon mentions Reagan and Gorbachev in his act (as “Eunuch Ron” and “Grostulating-Gorbi”), but the very structure of his song — with its dissonant mood swings and manic rhythmic shifts — mirrors all the confusion and rottenness of the modern world. Walker seems to imply here that only an ugly, bloated song could reflect the ugly bloat of empire.
That’s nothing, though, compared to the diasporic dump described in “Epizootics!” Like some kind of luau in hell, this track — with its sinister tubax riff and dark jumble of percussion — outlines the sloppy postcolonial aftermath. It begins with the colonist’s flight, because “the veins ran out,” and culminates in a rotten orgy of “native bods squealing Bflat, like choirs of pigs.” Versed by Walker, Hawaii appears less the site of natural wonder and primitive smiles than a hothouse of corruption and petty cons. The singer really shows his conservative side here, but even if he has nothing but disgust for the locals, “their eyebrows climbing into greasy black hairlines,” he seems to be having a hoot with their polyglot language. The song’s title refers both to an epidemic in animal life and the groovy scat of the beats. We meet a cool “Adepocere in a zoot” and then a sinister duo, “Scratch and Jesus on the corner,” but this local color is just an excuse for Walker to rip off his best street slang. Words here jostle like knees and elbows in a sweaty swing dance — “Joe below,/ Hincty dicty./ Slipped the pounders./ Fews and two./ Knock me./ Boot me,/ down in the land of darkness.” But, again, the track is rotten from the inside out. With a few finger snaps and beatnik “shhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” it breaks for a quiet moment to contemplate a decapitated head (borrowed from Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), and then with a set of leering jazz horns, launches back into the groove. Tropical fever never seemed so hip.
The Decaying Language
A babble, for sure. Bish bosh. Ish kabibble. Ickeroo. A dink a dink a doo. Some Swedish: Hej do. Hej do. Some Latin: Contritio/Attritio. Tons of street slang. Hey Buddy! Hey Pal! Da. Da. Da. Lardie, Lardie, Lardie. Dog barks. Cock crows. GTFO! Booty Chatter! And then there are the noises: scrapes, hisses, rolling marbles, swooshes, clangs, and creaks, a bending pole a la Warner Brothers, machetes slashing, chisels chiseling, and, even, once, the sound of a vagina crying out “yonical tears.” No doubt, listening to Bish Bosch demands a raunchy ear. Lyricism gives way everywhere to sonic smut. “BAR! BAR! BAR!/ BAR! BAR!/ BAR! BAR! BAR!/ BAR! BAR!” goes the middle section of “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter).” The dwarf calls this his “noblest music,” but the liner notes remind us that “The word Barbarian derives from the incomprehensible bar-bar-bar noises of outsiders made in lieu of language — an expression of snobbery and elitism.” As a songwriter, Walker claims he always begins with words (all else is “dressing”), but here his lyrics are aggressively anti-lyrical, everywhere emphasizing sound over substance. Even those words that seem to pin down meaning in a precise way — “bdelloid Rotifers,” “Duma,” “Dorgi,” “Altair, Vega, Drogba,” “Rummy” — do so with such excessiveness that they tend to draw all attention towards their own strange sounding.
In other words, Bish Bosch everywhere slurs away from its own expressivity, from the “I” who speaks, towards the outside, the outsider, the barbarian’s inhuman stammer. Like The Waste Land before it (a poem referenced throughout “Zercon”), it stages the breakdown of culture and history as the breakdown of language yet simultaneously revels in that linguistic disaster. As the album’s first track announces, the “mythic instance of erotic impulse” is “slipping under a surefire sign,” and yet that very slippage signals, as it did for modernist poets in general, the birth of a new art and a new eroticism. So, in “Corps de Blah,” we find not just a decaying body, but a decaying lingo, a play of sound and signification that teeters, pleasurably, on the brink of meaninglessness. Take, for example, the following bit of Dadaist word trash:
in the mascon.
… or . . .
Crowded with sulphured air,
Kyrie’s lone whistler
in the shadows.
You can find meaning here — tons of meaning — through any online dictionary, but you’ll just as quickly lose it again. The message conveyed by such lines is just as much dissolved as it is established by their forms. Their semantic content (which implies an age-old attraction between purity and squalor) is immediately troubled by their quirky arrangement on the page, their loose structural similarity, their giddy assonance, their faltering rhyme scheme, and, of course, their weirdly moody and slyly syncopated delivery on the recording. But this is just the start. Walker elsewhere pushes this formal play towards fully deconstructive ends, exploiting the easy way in which meaning drifts even within socially established contexts. In “Tar,” for example, he vexes the power of religious authority by mistakenly inverting the terms of religious dogma (i.e., “God creates man and then the animals” and “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree”). On “The Day the Conducator Died,” he undermines the discourse of personal growth and discovery by laconically singing the options on a personality questionnaire (i.e., “I have control over desires/ and temptations … O Not so much/ O Very much.”). In other words, Bish Bosch stages the decay of all systems as sign systems. Walker, though, occupies this decay less as a madman or an ironist or even as a subject of history (as a modernist or a postmodernist, for example). Rather, he occupies it as the problem of language itself, of language in its relation to power, and thus as a problem that must be faced by any serious artist.
The Decaying Star
But where does that leave Scott Walker, the man and the artist? Where does he exist in all this mess? Does he still stand archly within or above his own creation, like a god paring his fingernails, or has he too been dispersed, disseminated, carried away by its sonic spew? We might here refer to backstory — the rise of the charming pop star, the public meltdown, the slow descent into Orphic madness. But Bish Bosch suggests a different portrait of the artist, mainly through “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter),” a song that Walker himself has referred to as the album’s “anchor.” Zercon, as mentioned, served in the 5th-century court of Attila the Hun, but his song allegorizes the relation of all art to empire. At first, his act consists of nothing but mockery; he insults his masters and finds himself insulted in turn: “Does your face hurt?/ cuz it’s killing me.” … “You’re so fat,/ when you wear a yellow/ raincoat, people scream/ taxi.” … “You’re so boring/ that you can’t even entertain doubt.” Some of these barbs are followed by an uncomfortably long silence, as if the singer (as if Walker himself) has directed them at the listener. Others are set to a dirge-like beat and followed by a set of ominous Roman numerals — “III V IX IX I V I” — as if we’re each being sentenced to some horrible torture. At the same time, though, Zercon, as insult comic, as cheap entertainer, suffers for his art. He himself is the butt of cruel jokes, as each night he must put his own ugliness and impotence on the stage for his enemies. “I’ve severed my reeking gonads for you,” Walker moans, as if referring to his own sordid songs, “fed them to your shrunken face.” Ultimately, though, Zercon, like Walker, retreats for his art. A would-be saint, he tries to rise above the squalid masses, climbs his flagpole, and seeks an isolated enlightenment. This, too, though, figures in the song as a cliché, a form of cheap entertainment (the notes explain that “Flagpole-sitting was a fad in the early 20th century”). The crowd continues to jeer at him, mocking his passion and commitment: “HEY BUDDY!/ GIVE IT UP!/ HEY PAL!/ COME DOWN!/ JOIN THE LIVING!” And so, it seems, neither high nor low, comedy nor tragedy, entertainment nor religion, there’s no position left for the artist in this corrupt world. Rising in the world is only moral falling, while falling signals only its own depravity. “How can you stoop so high?” Zercon asks (perhaps to himself), and, then, with damning judgment, declares, “you groomed yourself too small.” So, finally, in what is perhaps the coldest, darkest moment of the album, Zercon, with the bar-bar-bar of the barbarian crowd beneath him, comes face-to-face with the impotence of all art. A dark, interstellar gloom settles over the track. “OVER, it’s over,” Walker moans, in his lonesomist Gregorian ever, while ice creaks and scrapes around him. Zercon, the dwarf star, becomes SDSS1416+13B, a Brown Dwarf star, “the coolest sub-stellar body ever found outside the solar system.” It’s a devastating moment, one that speaks volumes about Walker’s own reputation and influence (or lack thereof). The whole ensemble just seems to drop into the darkness, taking the artist, his art, and even the listener along with it. (I’ve listened to this song 24 times, and its 22 minutes still seem to fly by. Even with its desolating conclusion, I can’t wait to play it again.)
Ultimately, Scott Walker — the dwarfed star — seems to be everywhere and nowhere in the rotten sprawl called Bish Bosch. His voice, both masterful and miserable, proves no comforting presence, but a constant reminder of his own glorious failure. Really, though, the success of the album rests on the listener, who must work through the entire process of constructing and then destroying its meaning before he or she can truly appreciate it. This is why any review of Bish Bosch must function more like a critical analysis than a crass catalogue of pleasures and disappointments. Otherwise, the reviewer runs the risk of black-boxing the whole affair under a series of vague terms — “visceral,” “disturbing,” “unconventional,” “eerie,” “twisted” — terms that say nothing at all about the album and leave the listener free to do no more than skim its dark surface. In fact, without digging any deeper, I’d say the album comes across much the worse. With its avant-garde fragmentation, its blinkered European scope (obsessively bracketed by the two World Wars), and its grouchy, pessimistic attitude, the album seems like a strangely belated document, one that never expresses much more than disgust and disdain towards contemporary culture and its global dimensions. And, yet, for those courageous enough to lose themselves in its squalor, Bish Bosch reveals a remarkably vital approach to identity, to art, and even to history. As mentioned above, the album ends with a personality-profiling questionnaire. The questions are all grossly leading, but the answers are wonderfully vague. “I am nurturant, compassionate, caring. … O Not so much/ O Very Much.” … “Most of the chaos in my life is caused by … O Internal factors/ O External factors.” In the end, Walker refuses to choose, leaving all options in play, each persisting in its own messy indeterminacy. At first listen, the song seems to contrast this indeterminacy with the incredible determination of the Romanian firing squad that executed the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas day in 1989. “And nobody/ waited for/ fire,” goes Walker’s dark refrain. Yet, in the end, the incredible openness of the unanswered questionnaire seems equal to the shooting of dictators and a challenge to the tyranny of everyday life. This very refusal to cohere, to make sense, to play the game of identity and otherness, of harmony and disharmony, makes Bish Bosch this year’s only necessary work of art. Merry Christmas, listeners! Here’s to a lousy life!