ne of the best scenes in 1989’s ridiculously great Batman is when The Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, electrocutes a man with a novelty hand buzzer, cracks a joke about getting “hot under the collar” and then asks: “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?” After a brief stint as a UK pop pin-up in the mid-60s fake-brother singing group the Walker Brothers, Scott leapt from fame like a burning building to study Gregorian chant and make four cult albums of noir orchestral pop about hookers and famous dictators. Scott Walker is, like The Joker, a completely humorless comedian. A comedian like Samuel Beckett was when he made his bleak existential blooper reels or syphilitic savant Nietzsche, who grumbled that “[man] alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”
The problem with The Drift, besides the fact that it’s the least funny Scott Walker album ever made, is that it’s beautiful modernist art. I imagine his thought process: “well, to properly make an airless chamber of pure, soul-smearing terror, I will need at least 100 well-trained string players, incredible tube preamps, and four expensive condenser mics pointed at a very tender piece of beef, weighing preferably between 75 and 80 pounds. Oh, and 11 years,” completely forgetting the principle that fire needs oxygen to burn.
Even 1995’s Tilt, Walker’s previous exercise in art-rock extremity, had enough light to cast alluring shadows; at his best, he could make a character like 1978’s “The Electrician,” a lonely executioner whose juices flowed when he let the juice flow. He could make you laugh and cringe at the same time, because he delivered that line—“If I jerk the handle, jerk the handle, you’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me”—with the comfort of a crooner, the absurd fear of a paranoiac, and a kind of grotesque grandeur.
His effort to make the most tense, uncomfortable record in the world has resulted in something that actually feels pretty straightforward, uncomplicated, and digestible. It’s like seeing the philharmonic putting on pieces about the decimation of some Eastern European village—you listen to some self-consciously ugly music, read the program notes, (it’s oh so ghastly); you go home totally unbothered.
The Drift lies amongst what critic Clive Bell called “the cold white peaks of art”; songs about Carla Petacci and Mussolini’s bodies being poked at with sticks and explorations of the 9/11 survivor and Elvis’ stillborn twin mimic a certain horror, but they’re slightly… lifeless. So Bell might be more into Picasso’s Guernica than Francis Bacon (who I’ve heard Walker compared to, and who, not so coincidentally, the Joker admits to liking in Batman): Guernica freezes the scene with mouths open, makes something dynamic into something static. Bacon took something static—a pope sitting in his chair, a side of beef—and gave it life. In a weird way, The Drift does what its title implies, just like Tilt did. It’s forceful and wild in the most predictable ways possible, and in turn, is psychically lighter than it might seem.
But yeah, everyone will proclaim The Drift to be a colossal masterwork and talk about its myriad profundities and how heroically excruciating it is. And they’ll say it’s “singular” and “untouchable,” and they’re right; it’s not meant to touch or be touched. It’s a cold white peak—it’s on the wall behind that low-hanging velvet guard rope.