Why should anyone care about Beck? Isn’t he just some 90’s holdover gone morose, gone Scientologist, gone lame with the weight of his early successes and the death of irony, that vein he mined so long and so well?
His last two releases, the aimless Guero and the overworked yet hollow The Information were critically shrugged at and popularly buoyed by the artist’s (deserved) reputation, but seemed to have found Beck Hansen short on good ideas or good energy, something for which he was never, ever lacking.
Yet the father of two is nearing 40, at the tail end of his recording contract, undetermined as to his future, and like the rest of us looking at the abyss that is the future of music.
An appropriate time for a shake-up.
His latest release, Modern Guilt, in stores today, seems desperate to reify Beck as a still-cool, still-exuberant, still-relevant artist. It’s certainly more fun than his last few outings, yet far more intensely negative, too.
Indeed, Beck seems obsessed with being the musician who can groove even while the sky falls because his groove is about the sky falling. He sings about “creatures of woe,” “bottomless pits,” a sea “swallowed by evil,” “ice caps melting down,” and “coming home like a letter bomb.” If that sounds a bit grimmer than your average “Devil’s Haircut,” it is, but sonically Beck’s got a secret weapon of hope, even if “you’re standing in a hurricane.”
That hope, and the big story behind this album, is that Beck brought on Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), he of Gnarls Barkley, the Beatles-meets-Jay-Z Gray Album, and various other cred-building productions of late, as the album’s producer. It’s cred-building for Beck too, of course, and far more ink will doubtless be spilled on the beats and textures here than was ever devoted to Beck’s old producer, Nigel Godrich.
So what does it mean that Danger Mouse produced this album? His productions are not the most accomplished, the most pinpoint accurate, or the most musically infectious in the business (barring, of course, the hook-of-the-decade megahit “Crazy,” his best song by a mile). Yet his ‘60s pop obsessiveness and hip-hop chops, his mix of classic rock nerdiness and streetwise beat-making make him an ideal reminder for Beck of the kind of pastiche he built his career upon.
Having gone from thrashing lo-fi nonsense-bard to slick-as-hell breaks-and-beats purveyor, from minstrel-flirting funkateer to retro psych-popper, simply having someone else in the room with similar enthusiasms has to be a help, especially for someone as notably and intentionally out of the loop as Beck keeps himself.
On the back of his 1994 hit single “Loser,” Beck built a career of absurdist wordplay, surreal sound-collage, and anomie bordering on performance art (I recall a particularly ridiculous episode of 120 Minutes where Beck responded to guest host Thurston Moore’s questions by hurling his shoes at the Sonic Youth star). Odelay recently got the reissue treatment, a reminder of all that Beck seemed capable of at the start, and a bit of a reminder of how he’s disappointed.
Doubtless, like many producers, Danger Mouse’s usual role in the studio is to give a crew of minions direction of the “I like that” or “more reverb” variety while in the studio, but reportedly he and Beck spent a good deal of the 10-week production time holed up in the studio late into the night, perfecting certain sounds, cutting, layering, and debating. Danger Mouse knows what he likes, and he likes songs to sound old, echoey, with jangled guitar progressions, and all those things are at play on this album, in forms that are more focused even than most of the tracks on the (rather middling) Gnarls album.
Modern Guilt is, for the most part, a collection of ‘60s-inspired shamblers, darkening the sunshinier aspects of Danger Mouse’s sounds with deep echo, soupy reverb, dusty effects, and of course Beck’s mewls about apocalypse. Yet unlike the Gnarls record, where Cee-Lo’s graveled gospel wail requires a constant fever pitch and often comes up far short of actual temperature rise, nothing on Modern Guilt feels overworked or overdetermined. Part of this success is due to the fact that the brevity of the whole and its composite parts barely gives this album time to disappoint, churning through 10 songs in 34 minutes. It’s something Danger Mouse could learn from, with some of the tracks ending quite abruptly, but never languishing. There’s room in pop for the six-minute opus, but like the three-hour epic movie, judiciousness yields greatness and the greatest artists know interminability doesn’t equal genius.
The first four tracks on the album really rocket out of the gate. Beachy, cymbal-slashing opener “Orphans” blooms from tinny guitar and glitch into a triumphal, prismatic ‘la-la’ chorus. Mod follow-up “Gamma Ray” falters slightly, sounding something like a psych knockoff band, the one that played in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, all single-note guitar line, spooky keyboard mystery, signifying nothing and sounding cliché where it should sound crazy. Next up is the album’s first single, “Chemtrails,” and it’s certainly the standout, a fuzzed-out mid-tempo ride that can’t decide if it wants to tune in (the frenzied bass-line-driven choruses), turn on (the undeniable drum fills, the looming strings) or drop out (Beck’s near-disaffected moaning, talking about when we “die in the slipstream”). That title, if you didn’t know, refers to the conspiracy theory that jet contrails are actually chemical sprayings meant for any number of nefarious Big Brother purposes; the anxiety is all over the place. The title track’s intentional surface noise, its bouncy piano-accented walking beat and super-hooky chorus seem ready-made for a soundtrack.
The album opens out a bit after this first thrust, from the mechanical beat and neu-disco tone pulses of “Youthless,” to the Morricone-ish “Walls,” with its Western twang, Eastern strings and dub breaks, Beck singing, “What are you gonna do when those walls are falling down / falling down on you?” It’s hard to believe Beck’s only just now titled a song “Replica,” but it’s so, and this one begins as a kind of scattershot glitched-out mass of intentions, but in a real Radiohead move the beat pattern emerges, brittle against the maelstrom of beeps and static, but held in place partly by Beck’s strings-backed tunefulness swaying in this end-times breeze; it may be the best song on the album.
The album hurtles to its close through the sludgy riff-hop of “Soul of a Man,” the sweet, ‘90s guitar-driven “Profanity Prayers,” and finally to closer “Volcano,” staticky, morose, acoustically enhanced, like the ghost from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change.
And of course that was the last time Beck seemed so unsettled, and it was the best music he ever made. Sea Change was sonically audacious for the man who had been poster boy for pastiche-heavy funk-a-thons. It was spare, it was lonesome, it was haunting, and it was heartbreakingly sad, full of breakup ballads. This time around the desperation isn’t kept between two sorrowful souls, but is something Beck wants to share with the whole world. His end-of-days language seems free from fear, and more invested in spectacle. In the end one wonders if Beck is really very worried about the world ending. He certainly seemed more worried about his broken heart in times past. Or maybe he’s just sifting through the dusty detritus right now, searching for the heart he lost and wants back again. It will be interesting to see where he goes next, because he seems poised to truly start shaking things up.