This year might just be The Year Avant Garde Broke. The Liars and The Red Krayola have released their most palatable works to date, Sonic Youth’s follow-up to the great Sonic Nurse looms on the horizon, and Scott Walker breaks his near decade-long silence with another theatrical, quasi-industrial explosion of an album. The strange and wonderful The Drift is marginally more accessible than Tilt, his weird-as-fuck 1995 spectacle o’ noise which I blast every Halloween, but it’s still geared toward the Metal Machine Music or Desert Shore crowd. To call it Walker’s best album in more than three decades isn’t really fair (his discography is sparse, even including the stinkers from the 1970s), nor is The Drift likely to be proclaimed classic or essential listening by or for anybody. But the album is powerful stuff, and though it’s unlikely to be heard by many, it’s even more unlikely to be forgotten by those who do hear it.
As far as soundscapes go, The Drift has a fascinating, imaginative sonic texture. Opener “Cossacks” is full of clangs, reverb, and vocal effects, but it’s driven by rat-a-tat-tat snares and guitar work that sounds like Dick Dale burning in hell. “Hands Me Ups,” a critique of celebrity culture which would be as lame as Peter Gabriel’s “Barry Williams Show” if its lyrics weren’t so impenetrable (I think someone gets crucified, though), features an instrument called the tubax: a saxophone the size and range of a tuba. “Jesse,” which the album’s press notes dub as his “9/11 song,” is a “deconstruction” of “Jailhouse Rock.” A dissonant baritone guitar farts out the famous guitar chord while the drums are reconfigured as whispers imitating planes exploding (“pow pow”). Oh yeah, and it’s all sung from the perspective of Elvis addressing his stillborn twin brother. The best track here, “Jesse” is as rich as it is bizarre and pretentious.
As for Walker’s voice, his moaning vocals remain stark, shrill, and inimitable. No one has really sounded like him before or since—probably because if anyone tried to emulate his howl, they’d sound like they were joking, and if Walker’s influences were so easily traced, he wouldn’t be the laureate of “difficult” pop music he is today.