Beck is back with yet another album and here’s the thing, it’s quite good. It’s not without its flaws, nor is it one of the top albums unleashed so far this year. For an artist who has ten plus studio albums behind him (depending on how you count his early work) and at first seemed destined to peak after the mega success of Odelayand its hit single “Where It’s At,” Beck is still able to surprise listeners.
Modern Guilt, which was released this week, pairs Beck up with yet another producer of the time, Danger Mouse, stepping in for his regulars, The Dust Brothers (Odelay & Guero) and Nigel Godrich (Mutations & The Information). Those already critical ofModern Guilt argue that Beck didn’t tap into Danger Mouse’s talent enough, it could be said that while Beck is influenced by his collaborators he has and probably always will be a one man show when it comes to his work.
If one were to pinpoint exactly where Danger steps in to play on Modern Guilt it would be with the record’s psychedelic soul and rock undertones, which are present but hardly overpower the album. True Danger Mouse, like Beck, is an über fan of the psychedelic music of the 60s and early 70s as seen clearly through his work with Gnarls Barkley. At a mere 10 tracks, clocking out after just over 30-minutes, the quick, tightly produced songs on Modern Guilt make this Beck’s easiest album to listen to.
If you look back at his career Beck Hansen really hasn’t released a bad album. There are the timeless greats like Mellow Gold,Odelay, and Sea Change, and the hardly “minor” records in between, each of which remain enjoyable testaments of a musician with a no-fear attitude when it comes to stretching the limits of his sound.
Take the ultra poppy, often criticized (by fans and even Beck himself) Midnite Vultures, an album heavy with radio friendly funk hits like “Sexx Laws” or “Mixed Bizness” but also littered with rare moments of genius. There’s the record’s closer, “Debra” (now a staple concert favorite), a playful ode to Prince’s high flying vocal chords and the silly but surprisingly sly “Milk and Honey,” which blends a boatload of studio experimentation with troubling references to the greed and a pending biblical obliteration of our planet.
Beck’s last two back-to-back efforts, 2005’s Guero (and its remix spawn Guerolito) and 06’s The Information, showed a maturation as well as musical return to form after the acoustic folk record Sea Change. While both albums featured some of Beck’s best work to date–take for example Guero’s “Earthquake Weather,” an ode to lazy seventies soul or The Information’s “Cellphone’s Dead,” propelled by a Headhunters era bass groove–they are ultimately overly ambitious in their scope with a handful of throwaway tracks, respectively.
It’s difficult to place Beck’s newest sonic experiment among the rest. Some songs feel reminiscent of his Mutations period, others like the record’s one “epic” track and first single “Chemtrails” features a guitar noise outro that would make the shoegazers proud.
Lyrically Modern Guilt is pure Beck, sans an overall level of quirky humor and satire that made his early works so much more enjoyable. In an age where songs depicting world destruction and the apocalypse are as common as the classic love song, some of the themes displayed on Modern Guilt come across as a bit passé. While some of the lyrics are a bit uninspired and just damn right depressing others, in typical Beck fashion, knock the message out of the park. On “Walls,” a bizarre short built upon dreamlike strings and a rickety drumbeat, Beck writes about the evident threat hanging over America (“warheads in the kitchen”) but really nails this country’s possibly overly zealous comfort level with the money line, “You treat distraction like an instant religion.”
Coming from the man who once wrote, “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey” the lyricism on Modern Guilt is not only Beck at his most straightforward but also at his bleakest (even after the remorse ridden breakup album, Sea Change, this is a macabre record). Still the album works and is proof again that Beck has survived an entire decade of the post-alternative wave and is still able to turn any and all impressions of his music upside down.
It’s hard to say what the tour for Modern Guilt will be like. Beck is as much known for his stage antics as he is for his music with such playful acts as singing in a bear costume or most recently during The Information tour featuring a troupe of Beck and company marionettes who mimicked the performers in real time. Even on the Sea Change album tour he employed quirky psychedelic rockers, The Flaming Lips as his backup band. What Beck’s creative mind has in store for live audiences is definitely to be determined.
At the age of 38 Beck still has a long and promising career ahead of him. There has been a fair amount of bad press surrounding Beck in recent years, especially about his self-acclaimed embracement of Scientology (which, for the record, he views more as an organization aimed at helping to better our planet rather than a radical religion focusing on returning to the mothership). Personal life aside, it’s been fascinating watching his career blossom over the years. For someone who jumped on the scene with a song that seemed destined for frat boy infamy, his signature sound has matured like a fine wine. While it’s difficult to say where Modern Guiltwill fall in his catalogue, it remains proof that this artist is still a driving force in modern music.