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Screaming, Dreamy: Scott Walker rips through Melville's sensual bog on Pola X.

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The lilting noise of the Pola X soundtrack may make it the album of the year

By Sullivan Bianco

Does anyone remember the future? Well, how about The Future? No, not the Leonard Cohen comeback LP--the Sinatra version of the future, better known as record No. 3 of his 1979 album Trilogy. In this one, Francis Albert lets it all hang out: his unzipped dreams (flying his spacecraft up to Uranus, a.k.a. "heaven," then ordering a "cheese and tomato pizza" to verify the landscape) and his dangled fears ("World War None" and its 10,000-foot-high holocaust). He also lets fly his desire to conduct an orchestra, forgetting that a few years previous he'd done so in his only instrumental disc, Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems in Color.

"So what?" you say, if, sometimes, saloon singers can relax their golden throats and make "serious" music. There's no denying that these efforts, like Book III of Sinatra's My Revelations, can result in white-elephantized crap. But, then again, Marvin ("I never wanted to shake my ass, I only wanted to be a black Sinatra") Gaye did issue some of the eeriest and edgiest soundscapes in his partially sung soundtrack to the god-awful blaxploitation flick Trouble Man. " 'T' Stands for Trouble," a fuzz-wah-barbed beat opus, is the kind of thing that barely registered stateside for its intrinsic value as music, but managed to find acclaim in Germany as an award-winning electronic (!) album in the mid 1970s.

All this more or less leads up to the man of the hour, Scott Walker. Best known for being the rich, bellowing lead singer of the Walker Brothers and their monster Bacharach hit "Make It Easy on Yourself," he buried himself in studio solo work and vodka in the early 1970s, alternately releasing Tom Jones-y cover LPs alongside his angst-pocked originals. His compositional work--best seen on his first four self-titled albums, Scott 1 through Scott 4--always had the air of genres being smacked together, or the sense of Jack Jones being forced to sing Jean Genet-esque lyrics like "Give us your lips/ give us your thighs/ give us your sad and devouring eyes" at gunpoint.

But it was clear by the time of 1995's Tilt that he had abandoned most traditional musical notion and form except dissonance as described by a sprawling, dense and creepy sound-skin. His sound on Tilt was that self-reflexive--cacophonic static smears, snowblown noise, gushing swells of crackling percussion, coiled strings and shards of vocal swells, stuff that makes goth look like Mitch Miller.

His newest album gives even less ground, and yet is more graceful a noise piece. The soundtrack to Pola X, a French movie adaptation of Melville's Pierre (the title is an acronym for the French one, Pierre, ou les Ambiguities, but the X is a deliberate mystery). In addition to being a pricey French import CD (so you used-bin-scouring schlubs can stop reading here), this muther is the album of the year. There, I've said it. Scott Walker, the zoned, expatriate American, has made his best album in 20 years (no small feat, since his output officially dwindled to three albums and one single in that time).

The album kicks into action with Walker sampling himself from Tilt. He's frantic, haunted and aware that his thoughts on the last album carry well into a work that anatomizes despair. Then, silence and as an embarrassing shock, one gets . . . classical music--the very romantic bowing of the Paris Philharmonic, playing what sounds like Ravel at the most even, measured tempo. With the exception of the inclusion of one Sonic Youth and one Smog tune, voices are conserved until the first quarter of the album is over.

A cut-by-cut account of the disc would be as useless as dissecting a heart to find where it broke. Better than any Disney read-through where Tinkerbell's wand compels you to turn the page, Walker's work is a comparable, mimetic splurge of evocation, no less than Melville's prose. "River of Blood" blurs the movie's ambient sound into a vulgar, beautiful stethoscopic muffle that has to be turned up to be believed. "The Church of the Apostles"--six minutes of black, bleak skronk--sacrifices ears and goes all the way. As a description of a dessicated building, it levels even Trent Reznor's brilliant work on Lost Highway. Tone prose is really what this noise is, a violent and symphonic defenestration of the usual film score "action." Oh, yeah, and it might be the future, too.

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From the January 24, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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