Scott Walker, former 60’s pop star turned eclectic outsider troubadour consistently mines some pretty dark places in his music. There’s a quasi-operatic bleakness in his singing, a kind of wounded vulnerability that suggests having lived through some unimaginably awful and intolerable pain. But then his lyrics, while often similarly bleak, or at the very least oblique, will also periodically delve into juvenile humour, where you get the sense that he’s actually having some fun with his reclusive avant auteur image. His music is often shrill and jarring, at times feeling structureless, rising and falling in behind his poetic vocals, constructed via a mixture of conventional instrumentation and musical slapstick, a machete on one piece, a meat carcass on another, even fart sounds. His approach owes a lot to avant-garde composition, a place where melody and repetition aren’t necessarily required. To use a tired cliché it’s very much music that creates it’s own universe, where the laws that usually govern what we hear no longer apply, and everything is frighteningly overwrought and typically unexpected.
His last album, 2012’s Bish Bosch, was brimming with this kind of dark absurdism, though between the sleigh bells and piercing keys there was also a spot of doomy guitar riffage, which is why the presence of US drone guitar lords Sun O))) isn’t such a huge surprise.
What is a surprise however is the widescreen beginning, with keys, a hair metal riff and Walker singing “across the wide Missouri,” in a way that you can almost see him waving his arm across his body magnanimously like he’s standing on a mountain top, before whips crack and the droning doom riffs begin and we’re entering the kind of territory we might be expecting. But this light beginning does lay the groundwork for an album that is layered with lots of special, or at least surprisingly not overly bleak and doomy moments. Sure there’s some moments of dread but they’re tempered with moments of warmth and indeed beauty. Possibly the most surprising aspect of this first piece, Brando, is its musicality and distinct parts that even include repetition, with the triumphant riffing, keys and Walker’s refrain returning midway. But fear not, Walker’s vocals and penchant for the use of almost Foley like sounds, dropped into the mix periodically to create a meaning that only he truly comprehends, as well as his unique delivery, serves to keep everything bewilderingly off kilter.
Surprisingly Sun O))) bring a certain coherence and warmth to Walker’s music. Their drones, present during much of these 5 eight minute plus pieces create a welcome or at least understandable base from which Walker can dive off the edge. The guitar tone has no sharp edges with all the shrill sheared off – in the main its this clean fuzz of predominantly bottom end, and Sun 0)))’s desire to play real notes actually results in Walker’s most musically coherent album for a couple of decades.
The final piece Lullaby is a perfect representation of this album. Beginning with a low drone and percussive twitching it sets an ominous tone before Walker warbles “tonight my assistant will pass among you/ his cap will be empty/ hey na ne na ne,” later he inexplicably offers “Why don’t minstrels go from house to house/ howling songs the way they used to.” Again there are a series of parts, with the band returning to the initial refrain, after a very uncomfortable chorus with Walker wailing “Lullaby” over music that seems to be working against itself. It’s confusingly coherent by Walker’s standards.
Sun 0))) don’t possess the same kind of bleak despairing darkness that Walker calls home, consequently there is something almost cartoonish about their guitar sound, or perhaps their more musical approach, when placed alongside Walker, though in tandem with his delivery and incoherent sound sources, it’s actually quite welcome. Walker becoming more musical is actually quite fascinating. There are moments here such as on Bull, where the guitar provides a certain cover and indeed strength to Walker’s raised voice that s both powerful and even beautiful.
There is no doubt that this collaboration has produced something special. It still feels like a Scott Walker album, but the warmth of Sun 0))) has taken his music in an entirely new, less jarring and more cohesive direction. Walker has never needed the machismo of rock to jolt or terrify the listener and the great thing about Soused is that Sun 0))) don’t feel the need to push in this direction either.