"Gonads" and "sever" are good indications of the vocabulary and subject matter at work here. Like Walker's last two albums-- 1995's Tilt and 2006's The Drift-- Bish Bosch is austere, high-minded music about a dirty world where people always seem to be getting castrated or mutilated by something or another. It features drums and guitars and other passing references to rock music, but its deepest roots are in the dissonant, turn-of-the century compositions by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg-- music that divided its early audiences between applause, hissing, and laughter. More than anything Walker's latter-day albums sound like a parody of what people probably think of when they think of "avant-garde." No scene captures them better than video footage taken during the recording of The Drift, in which Walker-- a friendly looking man in a baseball hat-- instructs a percussionist on exactly how he would like him to punch a side of beef.
The story of Walker's career is a strange and amazing one. He grew up in Ohio but spent most of his life in England and Europe. He was cover-boy famous by his early 20s and a has-been by 30. Between 1967 and 1969 he released a series of orchestral pop albums whose stories about Joseph Stalin and childhood prostitution contrasted-- sometimes beautifully, sometimes just cynically-- with their high-gloss arrangements. No man has ever sung the word "gonorrhea" with more poise.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, he effectively disappeared, putting out a few sub-mediocre country albums, a few new songs with his former group the Walker Brothers (including "The Electrician", which is really the starting point for the music he's making now), and 1984's Climate of Hunter. The output of his unexpected second act-- Tilt, The Drift, and now Bish Bosch-- have taken 20 years to record. Scarcity creates demand-- this is basic economics. With an artist like Walker, though, long waiting times between albums serve mostly to reinforce the idea that he is careful and deliberate, and in turn, the idea that his music is not just product, but that purest of things which cannot be rushed: Art.
Besides the appropriately exhausting 20-minute sweep of "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)", the best songs on Bish Bosch-- "'See You Don't Bump His Head'", "Corps De Blah", and "Epizootics!"-- are also the most immediate. Walker's approach here, especially compared to Tilt and The Drift, is almost cartoonish: Big, bouncy saxophones, bright trumpet fanfares and, on "Corps", what sounds like a small dog barking. These songs work for one simple reason: In the midst of all Walker's void-courting experimentation, they give listeners something vaguely familiar to hang on to.
Here and there, the contrast between the brainy and the base is so deliberate it sounds like pandering. When Walker sings “If shit were music, you'd be a brass band!" on "Zercon", for example, he's probably trying to remind people that this is all supposed to be on some level funny, which makes it instantly less funny-- not to mention less tragic-- than the Walker who sang lines like "I've become a giant, I fill every street/ I dwarf the rooftops, I hunchback the moon, stars dance at my feet" in a song about an overworked husband whose only liberation in life comes from whores.
As much as it can sound like it stands alone, Bish Bosch is part of a tradition of music that tried to find new ways to articulate that same old misery. Wagner operas, Mahler symphonies, the brutal cabaret of Jacques Brel (who Walker covered extensively in the 1960s), David Bowie, Diamanda Galás, the aggressive anti-music of no wave, even early Swans: this is music that doesn't sound exactly like Scott Walker but makes Walker's bleakness and theatricality sound that much more familiar. Bish Bosch is difficult music that was intended to sound difficult and be enjoyed primarily by people who enjoy difficult experiences. The irony is that it is difficult in conventional ways.
Walker's career has always been surrounded with the whispery, romantic myth of genius, and we need myths like that-- myths about people who seem to forge their own path into the wilderness of their art, slowly and alone. The danger is to pretend that the music exists somewhere above us, or, like a carnival ride, is something we have to be This Smart to understand.
Like the movie director David Lynch, Walker is an artist that people-- fans and non-fans-- seem bent on "getting," as though there was anything to "get" in the first place. Let's pretend there isn't. Let's pretend that when Walker tells a "you're so fat" joke halfway through "Zercon", it's not a metaphor for anything, but an insult about fat people.
A few minutes later, he breaks down and starts screaming, "Did you ever throw your own mother's food back at her? Did you ever tell her 'Take this junk away'? What kind of an unnatural son would do that to his own mother?" Let's pretend that the moment has nothing to do with 5th-century Moorish history or the astronomy behind brown dwarf stars. Let's pretend it's simpler than that. Behind all its obscure references and theatrics, Bish Bosch is a catalog of basic human cruelty-- a subject no footnote could ever make any easier to understand.