Scott Walker + Sunn O))) Soused

[4AD; 2014]

Styles: avant-doom
Others: please.

Over a soaring, all-American riff, the aging expat baritone croons, “Ah, the wide Missouri/ Dwellers on the bluff/ Across the wide Missouri/ Never enough, no, never enough.” Soused begins with a pronouncement of denial: of beauty, of human achievement, of nature itself. The will that animates both “progress” and the avant-garde is this very denial. It says, “This beauty is unfinished,” “These achievements are minimal,” “This world is incomplete.” But after Scott Walker’s voice rings out into silence and the lyrics echo a moment in the skull, Sunn O)))’s immense wall of distortion arrives to pay the wages of this denial: horror, pain, power, violence. Whence the torturous spiral of Soused lurches forward, a denial of denial, recording at each turn the psychic disturbance that inheres in the dialectic of longing for the impossible.

That desire manifests first as a kind of masochistic autosuggestion. “Brando’s” reading of the whippoorwill’s song provokes a realization of his own illogical desire: “A beating would do me a world of good.” It’s clear from Walker’s tone that this isn’t just playful sexuality, but real violence. The whipcracks that repeat throughout the track’s almost 10-minute length issue from a weapon, not a toy. And yet, the violence here is incomplete. “Brando” doesn’t admit to a longing for death; he’s an actor, trying on the costume of pain, clowning it for the audience with his rugged masculinity (Walker, during an interview with The Quietus, jokingly suggests that Marlon Brando must have built his repeated onscreen beatings into his contract). Brando, as a figure of the public’s desire, wears the death drive like bruise makeup, enacting the viewer’s fantasy and thereby his own. But “Brando,” in its stark presentation of this reality-denying fantasy, complete with O’Malley, Anderson, and Nieuwenhuizen’s serrated, sudden guitar assaults, lets the mask slip to allow the horrific reality through. A tone of disquiet persists from these moments onward.

Like “Brando,” “Fetish,” the least traditionally-structured track, concerns an impossible desire, but instead of providing an image that allows the listener to, in Zizek’s terminology, “traverse the fantasy,” it gives us an image of the traversing and the resultant delirium and disgust. Here, a kind of sacrifice occurs, a body, fetishized as an object, receiving a carving instrument. Unnamed, the object of this devotional exercise merges both erotic and violent drives in a single action. “There is/ No/ Nothing else,” proclaims the speaker, having achieved intimacy, the state that Bataille designates as the result of sacrifice, in which the celebrant fuses with the undifferentiated nothingness of reality. “Tell us apart/ We can never die,” he continues, delirious, approaching a coprophiliac climax: “Can’t afford but bescumber/ Our spunk-stiffened tresses.” But eventually, the moment ends with murmured goodbyes. Whatever voyeuristic comedy hides in “Fetish’s” mass of horn ejaculations, ring-modulated oddity, and pounding guitar, whatever hedonistic glee, its narrative undertone is true madness. The result of this sacrificial denial is not an endorsement of the achieved mystical state, but an image of maddened delusion, a reveling evil, uncovered in its transgression.

But delusion isn’t always so consciously pursued. As the walls of Sunn O)))’s fortress rise to cover the insistent clanging of a bell on “Herod 2014,” Walker intones, “She’s hidden her babies away,” a refrain to which he constantly returns, as if stuck in the recurrence of the sector of the widening gyre of history in the title’s biblical reference. Perceiving the horror of the real, this figure buries her children, hiding them from both the blinding brilliance of Rubens and Poussin and dangerous Stasi thugs, preventing their “soft gummy smiles” from “gilding the menu.” Even carrion flies and moonlight can’t find them. As the immense guitars and screeching saxophones menace the quiet but ceaseless bell, the mother’s justified fear warps into slaughter; in fleeing death, she murders her charges, preventing them from suffering by hiding their faces from the light. But though she slips like an eel through the dark, the looming drones still beset her, and a narrator enters, closing in, as if to rescue the hidden children and reveal to them what they’d never know. As if he believes that the desperate rescue will invalidate the paranoia, he executes another denial of denial, another rescue from death so that we might see it in its true colors.

“Red, then orange, then yellow, then white.” The towering “Bull” is a sacrificial fire, making explicit references to crucifixion and Ash Wednesday, when all Christians are reminded that we are made of dust and to dust we will return. Walker claims that this piece hearkens back to the crusades, tracing yet another turn in history’s warped spiral as now world war ignites in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. But the command is to “Keep movin’ on.” Follow orders. The martial, proclamatory chorus melds with one of Sunn O)))’s most straightforward yet monolithic riffs, pressing the song forward into a downward spiral. Here, Walker mocks both the image of progress and our past follies, showing the brutality of our history and its apparent recurrence. It negates denial, and denies its return in the present.

And yet, in “Lullaby,” a reworking originally written for Ute Lemper, Walker still finds moments for nostalgia. The narrator laments the loss of wandering minstrels and chiaroscuro painting styles, while practicing assisted suicide, rendering it painless: “In vain I douse another lamp/ In vain, and then another lamp.” His lullaby is Ophelia’s song to herself, “Hey nonny nonny,” as she floats down the river to her death. The lullaby is thus compromised by its purpose: although it is supposed to lull the patient to sleep, it sings “the most intimate personal choices and requests, central to [their] personal dignity,” reminding them of life as the needle enters their bound appendage. Theirs is the final denial, one that Walker can’t bring himself to endorse. “Lullaby” follows them to their doom which they have longed for without end.

It’s doom, the weight of Sunn O)))’s reality, that binds this project together; their sound is so palpably present, so physical, generated by massive amplifiers and speakers, that it brooks no denial. Although occasional representational sounds intrude on some tracks, it is Sunn O)))’s glacial, thundering voice that carries Walker’s conceptual project forward. The drone itself is an arresting of progress, a spacetime-saturating eruption, inviting the listener to inhabit the moment of its passing rather than relentlessly propelling us into new sound. Peter Walsh, co-producer with Walker, has achieved a herculean labor in arranging these walls of distortion and intensity while allowing Walker’s words to flourish.

Although Walker’s position in Soused’s matrix of denial is, like his oeuvre, complex and opaque, what is clear is that the work submerses the listener in its suffocating substantiality. This makes it an object-lesson in endurance, not of time but of pain, confusion, horror, and disgust. It seems to provoke denial of itself, the design and content merging into a single mass. It seethes with strangeness, disquiet, and bleak darkness. Well, if it hurts, don’t tarry too long here then. See what happens if you keep movin’ on.

Links: Scott Walker + Sunn O))) - 4AD


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