Album Review: Scott Walker + Sunn O)))—“Soused”

By James Li, Feature Photo via Pitchfork

There’s been a weird trend of aging art rock legends teaming up with younger guitar shredders with varying results. David Byrne and St. Vincent joined forces on Love This Giant, which got a mixed reception, and the less said about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu, the better. But a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O))) called Soused? That might be weirder yet.

In one corner, you have Sunn O))) (named after the amplifier brand and pronounced “sun”), the Seattle drone metal duo famous for performing live wreathed in black robes and in fog. They’ve made collaborative albums before, usually with other metal experimentalists like Boris and Ulver. Sunn O))) are also masters of tailoring their sound to a wide array of vocalists, from black metal shrieker Atilla Csihar to a Viennese women’s choir.

But Sunn O))) are nowhere as strange as the other half of the collaboration. Scott Walker is an elusive and chameleonic character. His career is a story of transformation: from teen idol to highbrow chaunter (taking influences from Jacques Brel, Albert Camus, and Ingmar Berman – it doesn’t get fancier than that) to failed country singer to reclusive alcoholic (he hasn’t performed live since 1978, and only released one album each in the 80s and 90s) to bizarre avant-gardist.

It’s Walker’s last persona that we see on his collaboration with Sunn O))), Soused. Sunn O))) initially asked Walker to sing on their 2009 album Monoliths & Dimensions. Walker declined, but little did Sunn O))) know that Walker would come back with five songs (totalling 50 minutes) he’d written with them in mind.

Accordingly, Soused sounds more like an album by Scott Walker than one by Sunn O))). The first track, “Brando,” opens with a blindingly bright guitar solo, the chime of an organ, and Walker’s operatic vocals. The result sounds like Luciano Pavarotti singing for Guns N’ Roses. The bombast quickly subsides, as Sunn O)))’s humming guitars and a sputtering drum beat enter. Bullwhips crack in the background, as Walker masochistically croons that “a beating would do me a world of good,” referring to how often Marlon Brando was beaten up in his movies.

Album art for Soused

Album art for Soused

The world of Walker’s lyrics is surreal and grotesque, and Sunn O))) provide a terrifying backdrop. Walker sets a Biblical story in modern times on “Herod 2014”: a mother hides her babies from the murderous king of Judea, but she’s also hiding them from “the deer fly, the sand fly, the tsetse” and “the goon from the Stasi.” Sunn O)))’s guitars and a saxophone imitate human voices, shrieking and moaning as Walker spins his tale. Walker reinterprets “Lullaby,” a song that he had previously written for German singer Ute Lemper on the closing track. Walker wrote the song about assisted suicide and the sounds of death – an atmosphere that Sunn O))) establishes perfectly. Walker openly muses as to why minstrels don’t “go from house to house howling songs” or artists don’t “paint their cloudy spines chiaroscuro” the way they used to.

Soused may be a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O))), but Walker’s voice, words, and personality dominate the album. That’s not to sell Sunn O))) short. They feel like a backing band and their signature droning guitars are less prominent, but they set the stage perfectly. Walker’s powerful baritone doesn’t need to compete for attention with the music – for a 71 year-old man, he belts better than most people half his age. And whether Walker is invoking Marlon Brando or King Herod or hearkening back to a time of travelling minstrels and chiaroscuro paintings, he’s making it clear that he exists in his own madcap world.

Soused isn’t the best or even the most unusual thing that either Sunn O))) or Scott Walker have done. It’s difficult to imagine what kind of listeners will appreciate Soused, but as the album title suggests, maybe it sounds better after having a few glasses of wine. Still, it’s a great introduction to Sunn O)))’s blackened soundscapes and the mythical world of Scott Walker, making it one of the most unique releases this year. It has me dreaming about more collaborations between elder rock legends and younger metalheads – Kate Bush and Deafheaven, or perhaps Paul McCartney and Wolves in the Throne Room? The possibilities are endless! (4AD)

Listen: “Brando”

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