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Scott Walker

On his first proper album in 11 years, the 63-year-old onetime teen idol continues to challenge both listeners and musical conventions with bleak, existential, romantic and fright-inducing cabaret music sung in his resonant, operatic voice. Actually, I was considering panning this CD, because it isn't as immediately gorgeous as Walker's last record, Tilt. But it's too good.

Musically dissonant and jarring, Walker's songs seem at first to be enigmatic poems, half-spoken and half-intoned in an experimental performance art piece. On repeated plays, though, the themes and subjects emerge from the mannered performances.

For instance, "Jesse" seems to make mysterious references to Memphis, drugs and desperate loneliness. Turns out it's an imagined dialogue between Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin brother. The spare arrangement finds a Western-surf guitar's twang bumping up against some crashes of percussion that sound as if they are from a traditional Chinese opera. Then come the slashing, screaming strings straight out of a grade-B horror flick.

"Clara" is a 13-minute meditation on the execution of Mussolini;, "Buzzers" explores a surreal vision of torture in Bosnia; and "Psoriatic" tackles the oft-neglected subject of psoriasis sufferers during the Middle Ages. Then there's the murder of a donkey king in "Jolson and Jones" and the maniacal Donald Duck impression on "The Escape."

Casual listeners might find this music just plain freakin' weird, and it is an acquired taste, but if you engage in active listening, you'll get it. Whether you like it or not is an entirely different matter. I love it, even when I'm trying hard to hate it.

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