Perfect Sound Forever

SCOTT WALKER AND SUNN O))


Soused in detail
by James Paton
(February 2015)


Scott Walker is quite probably music's greatest recluse, and certainly as far as contemporary work goes, he's also its most serious and prolific composer, though applying the term prolific to a man who averages just one album every six years or so seems woefully inaccurate. Yet it is a status that he has cultivated since the breakup of pop sensations The Walker Brothers, and his first four critically successful albums that emerged between 1967 and 1969, yet bypassing the seventies completely, and focusing exclusively on his Lazarus-like return as a recording solo artist, he had, prior to the release of Soused, churned out just four albums since 1984.

His extraordinary change of direction though is a remarkable enough feat itself, let alone the dramatic quality that pervades the bulk of his work, the darkness around it, and the great disappearing act that he can somehow conjure up between albums, which sees him completely disappear between projects. With Soused though, we are perhaps again seeing a change in the way that Scott works, not only has the album emerged just under two years after the marvellous Bish Bosch, but it sees the fabled figure collaborate with drone metal band Sunn O)) on five tracks that the legendary composer created specifically for them. Scott is notoriously media shy, and regularly works with the same group of musicians that best understand his musical vision and irregular ways of working (even the tracks that he wrote for Ute Lemper were performed by Brian Gascoigne et al), so for him to change almost all of the personnel that he works with (Peter Walsh still remains on production duties) is a bold, and rather significant deviation from the norm. Though of course, there remains yet one thing that certainly hasn't been changed here, and that is the unrivalled quality of his brilliant, inimitable compositions.

Soused opens brightly with "Brando," a song that makes reference to the brilliant actor, and the strangely prevalent theme within his films that sees him being beaten up on a regular basis, as Scott mused in a recent interview with The Quietus, "he must have it written into his contract." The composition settles into a drone of distorted guitars and punchy, electronic percussion, with industrial-like synths providing a pedestal for Scott's now trademark warble rising out of the mix like a phoenix. The arrangement, like so many of Scott's feels entirely earthy, and unusual, with Peter Gamble (apparently Britain's leading bullwhip expert) cracking these repeatedly throughout, whilst Guy Barker's nasally trumpet work meanders back and forth across the stereo spread. Lyrically, the piece references several of Brando's early films, before Scott enthuses that "a beating would do me the world of good." Brilliant and strangely accessible stuff, though there is little doubt that this is Scott's most user-friendly album since 1984's Climate of Hunter.

"Herod 2014" continues Scott's trend of referencing some of mankind's truly darkest hours, he makes mention of East Germany's Ministry for State Security (the Stasi), a secret police organisation tasked with spying on its own population, a technique that Herod the Great employed more than 2,000 years ago to document the general mood of the people towards himself. Given that Herod was responsible for the deaths of most of his own family, the mood of the track is especially downbeat, driven along by a simple, distortion drenched guitar riff and programmed drums, which are punctuated by the sound of a scream-like saxophone that feels as though it is firing out an eerie warning to tell us of how little society has changed, and how quickly we too have found ourselves having our every move watched within our own police state. "She's hidden her babies away," Scott croons, "and why bring them out with no shelter on offer. The nurseries and creches are heaving with lush lice. Bubonic, blue-blankets, run ragged with church mice." His lyrics and myriad references may be impenetrable at times, but there is beauty to be found within even the darkest of moments, a trait Scott first cultivated on The Walker Brothers' final album Nite Flights and it remains in full force here.

At the mid-point of the album, we find the track "Bull," a nine minute long arrangement of screeching guitars and incomprehensible, yet at times, amusing lyrics that see Walker yelling "woke nailed to cross... could not give toss," yet the track as a whole could easily be perceived as an analogy of Scott's entire solo career, as he was shunned by his one-time fans after releasing what was then, the greatest work of his career in Scott 4. He wails "keep movin' on" and "custodian migremus," perhaps reiterating his own desire to continue to tread new ground, to follow his muse wherever it may take him. Regardless, the song builds up towards a cacophony of distortion, feedback and percussion that seems largely reminiscent of Trent Reznor's work on the Quake soundtrack, in equal parts eerily atmospheric, and undeniably beautiful. It's also worth noting that Scottish singer-songwriter, Dot Allison provided backing vocals on the track.

Fetish opens with a screech that sounds like a circular saw cutting through sheet metal, before bursting into life with simple percussion and a deep, heavy bass line provided by Sunn's Stephen O'Malley. It's another unusual arrangement, backed by beautifully poetic lyrics, that sees English trumpeter Guy Barker screech out a high pitched and heavily distorted attack on the ears-a far cry from his more melodious work with the likes of Wham!, Kajagoogoo and The Moody Blues. When the drums come in, and Scott caresses the listener, singing "tell us apart, we can never die," the track finds itself in an unexpected groove that will surely have every listener nodding along with it, before winding down to a close at just over nine minutes.

The final song on the album is a reworking of the incredible "Lullaby (Bye, Bye Bye)" that Scott wrote for German singer Ute Lemper for her 2000 album, Punishing Kiss. The mood of this version differing rather drastically from the original. In this piece, Scott utilises excerpts from the English Renaissance composer William Boyd's "My Sweet Little Darling" to create one of the most deeply moving choruses ever crafted, though this is certainly true of the original version, in this reworking, the tone is considerably more mocking and sarcastic. The lyrics, of course, remain sublime, seeing Scott feigning nostalgia as he ponders "why don't minstrels go from house to house howling songs the way they used to?" For fans of the original song, "Lullaby" may feel a tad disappointing, yet there is no doubt that it remains a perfect way to bring the album to a close.

Despite 2014 seeing a return to form for Richard D. James, along with new releases from the likes of Neil Young, Texan giants And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Wales' own Manic Street Preachers, it seems to be an overwhelming accomplishment that Soused has undoubtedly remained as the pinnacle of album releases this year, but then, when doesn't a Scott Walker release claim that coveted title?


Also see our articles on Scott Walker's The Drift and his Tilt album


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