Album Review: “Soused” — Scott Walker and Sunn O))) Take a Bold Excursion into the Impossible

Soused is such an impressive album because of its attempt to reconcile opposing aesthetic ends.

The cover art for "Souced"

The cover art for the Scott Walker/Sunn O))) collaboration, “Soused.”


Soused, the new album from veteran avant-garde singer-songwriter Scott Walker and Sunn O))), the master craftsmen of doom-laden heavy drone, renders criticism moot, if not mute. At this point, Scott has gotten the hang of playfully subverting any musical convention he can get his hands on; the internal logic of his music defies explication–bless Tiny Mix Tapes for coming closer than anyone thus far to communicate what Walker is up to. 2012’s Bish Bosch is an album I am deeply fond of because of its radically mangled song structures, bastardizations of genre, and absurdo-historical lyricism. This is off-putting music with a vengeance. Even though it was relatively well-received by critics upon its release, I’d argue the album wasn’t appreciated as much as it should have been. Most reviewers reduced it to an aural freak show.

Scott’s solo music has always been provocative. I dwell on Bish Bosch because it was such a starkly uncompromising realization of the anti-conventional aspirations he had been aiming at for decades. Truth is, standard critical approaches are futile when dealing with music that is sui generis, a distinctive expression of its creator. Bisch Bosch is essentially the Finnegans Wake of music. Its exegesis is yet to come, but hopefully it will in time.

I’m trying to lay the groundwork for a proper consideration of Soused, but I’ve yet to touch on the project’s anchor: Washington drone metal outfit Sunn O))). Both acts have worked with some seriously disconcerting themes, so this isn’t, as some might think, an unlikely collaboration. The fundamental difference between Scott and Sunn’s music is that the latter’s approach isn’t nearly as eclectic as Scott’s.

Soused is a dynamic and often soaring collection of drone doom pieces that continues Scott’s enduring subversion of genre expectations. The thick guitar drones Sunn supplies here are some of the most richly textured the group has ever done. Some will probably be disappointed that the album’s five sprawling tracks find Scott exploring more or less “just” one genre, but when the results are this interesting there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to ask for more.

Soused is such an impressive album because of its attempt to reconcile seemingly opposing aesthetic ends. Can music be both alienating and absorbing at once? The full-throttle attempt at this is what makes Soused so admirable, such a bold excursion into the impossible. Take the album’s centerpiece track, “Herod 2014.” Sunn’s thick, ominous wall of guitars create a haunting atmosphere that effortlessly drives the 12-minute-long piece. Meanwhile, Scott and producer Peter Walsh generate alienation aplenty through the use of intermittent sax squelches, sounds resembling shuddering wood planks, and pop culture allusions (like lifting a line from “My Favorite Things”). Never mind the track’s breathtaking, twinkling eruption of sound at the 10 minute mark.

Explosive, sometimes downright triumphant, bridges and refrains juxtapose with Soused‘s typically dirgey verses, from the abrupt and shimmering all-American rock intro of the opener, “Brando,” to the manic closer, a cover of the Scott-penned Ute Lemper song, “Lullaby.” In terms of its lyrics, the former tune comes off as a sado-masochistic depiction of the titular actor. At least I think it is–I have not gone too far in trying to unpack the words on Soused. Frankly, Tiny Mix Tapes’ review has already done a decent job of it. Their thoughtful piece sees the album’s theme as “longing for the impossible,” concluding that the result of such an urge leads to an ugly reality. The opposite argument could also be true–that the album presents a powerful musical ideal of reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be great to hear Scott’s bombastic avant-operatics melt into Sunn’s lumbering/lulling drones? Of course it would be, but the two approaches (sort of to my surprise) cannot be completely reconciled. Sunn’s past vocal collaborators don’t demand the spotlight quite as much as Scott does here. Attila Csihar, for instance, sounds more at home–or hell–in the band’s mixes.

In that sense, Soused is not a perfectly cohesive experience, but hearing these two titans take their best shot at making their sounds mesh has probably given me more enjoyment than any musical work since Bish Bosch. There are plenty of amazing moments. “Bull”’s chorus is the most cathartic musical release I’ve heard all year, and Sunn O))) gets a chance to shine with the five minutes of uninterrupted droning guitar that closes the track. There is also the awesomely grim trip of “Fetish,” as giddy a hymn to unpredictability and change as anything on Bish Bosch. Soused may sound much less labored over than its predecessor, but it is no less a brave and soul-rending journey.

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