“AUTODIDACTIC” is a big word, just as heavy as “pretentious” or “eccentric,” if not “genius.” All those terms apply to Scott Walker, the cavern-voiced singer-composer who’s been a cult figure for 30 years. Hard to absorb, deeply referential yet extremely introverted, Walker’s music crystallizes rock’s idea of high art. It’s a contradiction, the repertoire of an iconoclast.
Born Scott Engel in Ohio in 1943, Walker gained fame in the Beatles-informed trio the Walker Brothers before going solo in 1967 as a French-style balladeer. As his musical efforts became less frequent, his reputation as a god-touched oddity grew. Artists including Brian Eno and Radiohead revered him; critics declared him either a prophet or unlistenable. Now comes “The Drift,” Walker’s first album since 1995, and the choruses of praise and damnation have begun.
A Walker release is an event, despite its tiny commercial reach, because his assault on the realm of artistic seriousness confounds fixed definitions of both pop and art. There’s an accepted way to integrate the popular and the academic, practiced by insiders at the Mark Taper Forum or MOCA. Walker, in contrast, works in relative isolation, hybridizing orchestral music, French chanson and industrial rock without always citing references or staying within lines.
The William Burroughs-style cut-ups that augment “The Drift’s” lyrics, the Dadaist found instruments (including pounded meat), and Walker’s untrained operatic singing all make “The Drift” more rebellious than most so-called alternative rock -- though the coup Walker is staging may seem irrelevant to those unconcerned with the old battlegrounds of Romanticism and Modernism.
“The Drift” takes Walker’s guided tours of those art movements into darker corners than ever before.
Others have visited its themes, from Diamanda Galas to, dare I say it, T.S. Eliot: the psychology of fascism (the beautiful and chilling “Clara” is about Mussolini’s mistress, Claretta Petacci); the impact of terrorism; mass media’s colonization of consciousness.
Walker visits these ideas as if he alone has discovered them, his wild chamber music exuding tension and isolation. The result is startling, though frankly derivative. It’s outsider art; in spirit, if not in sound, it’s also rock ‘n’ roll.