Ever since his transformation from Existentialist Sinatra to the Donny Hathaway of Hell on 1997′s Tilt, Scott Walker has carved out a niche for himself as a cataloger of historical grotesques. His albums since then — there have been three, including Soused — have been crammed with stories of violence and gore: half-eaten faces, eyes pressed in forcefully with thumbs, a fat black crocodile swallowing bodies. The most widely reported detail about 2006′s The Drift was that one song featured the sound of a percussionist beating a side of pork with a bat. Less reported was the fact that the sound was meant to replicate the noise of Italian peasants beating the bloated corpse of Mussolini and his mistress Clara as they swung from the rafters of a gas station near the public square. On that same record, the stillborn twin brother of Elvis Presley was used as a gruesome metaphor for the toppling of the Twin Towers. Even the most beautiful song on “Tilt,” the mournful mini-symphony “Farmer in the City,” emotionlessly detailed the death of Pasolini at the hands of a prostitute he’d narrowly outbid someone for (“I’ll give you 21,” goes the song’s repeated refrain.) Each record brings with it its own menagerie of deformities — he’s like the Mutter Museum of music.
Soused is no different. A nominal collaboration with the metal band Sunn O))), the record’s dominant personality is undeniably Walker’s. “Brando,” the first song, opens with Walker bellowing operatically, “Ah, the wide Missouri,” summoning some kind of alternate-universe Aaron Copland while guitars peal and twinkle behind him. It’s a startlingly upbeat opening gambit, major-key and full of promise, but it isn’t long before the song plunges into darkness and someone starts cracking a bullwhip in the background. The song is loosely about the actor, but instead of cataloging his triumphs, it itemizes his suffering and sadomasochism, depicting him being whipped again and again by a series of tormentors. Walker’s characterization of one of America’s greatest actors is not as someone heroic, but as someone who was repeatedly drawn toward violence. The song is subtitled “Dwellers on the Bluff,” which is a loose translation of the Native American word “Omaha,” a state whose original inhabitants were overrun, exploited and evicted by the Lewis and Clarke expedition in 1804.
As that song implies, where Walker’s concerns on The Drift and Bish Bosch felt largely global (the liner notes for both of those records contained brief summaries explicating the historical reference points for many of the lyrics), Soused feels simultaneously more domestic and more personal. “Herod 2014″ tells of a woman hiding her babies from “bubonic blankets,” and is punctuated by the ghoulishly-sung chorus “Ho, ho, watenay,” which the notes chillingly explain was “a traditional Ojibwa Indian lullaby.” And speaking of: “Lullaby,” which closes the record, promises, “The most intimate personal choices…central to your dignity will be sung,” which scans like a glancing reference to the expose-everything mentality of the internet. On Soused, progress — specifically, American progress — has an underside as rotten and worm-eaten as a centuries-old corpse. In Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie Tom, the protagonist, spoke of a modern world lit by lightning. On Soused, it’s lit by funeral pyres.
Musically, the record matches that grim tone. Rather than bludgeoning with power Sunn O))) mostly replicate Walker’s usual abstract-nightmare instrumentation with guitars. On “Fetish,” guitars arrive in short, unrecognizable stabs — squelches, not blocks. Far-off feedback wails in empty space and creaks like an opening casket. When something like a riff finally arrives halfway through, it is groaning and sustained, a single chord ground again and again, more ominous rumble than actual notes. In “Lullaby,” they whistle and shriek, but could just as easily be tortured violins working agonizing glissandos. Like most of Walker’s records, the terror on Soused is defined by empty space — long silences streaked with the occasional horror-film sound effect. The only song on which the band’s presence is potently felt is “Bull,” a booming thunderstorm of a song where the band clobbers and bludgeons and grinds as a panicked Walker shouts the song’s inscrutable chorus: “Bump the beaky! Bump the beaky!” Soused is heavy not in sound, but with the collective weight of slow-building dread.
Soused is as another harrowing attraction in Walker’s Cronenbergian take on “It’s A Small World.” If others survey the centuries and see advancement, Walker’s guiding belief is in humanity’s unswerving propensity toward violence — that, left to our own devices, we will inevitably do the wrong thing. Even on Bish Bosch — his funniest record, in the same way that being hit by a clown car is funnier than being stabbed to death — the fart jokes (and there were fart jokes) occurred in the middle of a song that also featured burning teeth and flayed women. Soused is a window into the ways man destroys man, and Sunn provide the perfect, garish backdrop for Walker’s dark philosophy.