Falling Down on You

Right now it seems like a good time to assess Beck’s career.  Modern Guilt, his tenth  proper album, came out last week, while Odelay was reissued back in March.  This solidified its position as one of the defining albums of the 1990s and the benchmark by which all of his future releases would be judged. Beck reacted to its acclaim with some wild genre-hopping – from the relatively straightforward psychedelic folk-blues of Mutations to the retro-futuristic funk parodies of Midnite Vultures to the atmospheric melancholy of Sea Change.
Guero and The Information were stylistic melting pots of his back catalogue, like looking through the dusty, cracked glass of Sea Change at the kaleidoscope of his earlier work. But because he hadn’t shed his skin to reveal a new stylistic level, the reaction was from critics and fans was lukewarm. Sure, there weren’t the whiplash-inducing sharp turns and moments of jaw-dropping strangeness like on Odelay or Mellow Gold, but they delivered some great hip shaking moments (‘Black Tambourine’, ‘We Dance Alone’, ‘Think I’m In Love’) and some broody electronica (‘Farewell Ride’, ‘Heaven Hammer’, New Round’).

The deluxe editions of both albums, stuffed to the seams with bonus cuts, the Guerolito remix album and custom artwork gimmick of The Information felt like smoke and mirrors, perhaps the sign of an artist lacking confidence in his songs. The presentation of his latest, Modern Guilt, is much more focused and assured, with a running time of just over thirty minutes, simple artwork and lyrics right there in black and white for the first time since Sea Change.

Gamma Ray

However, Beck’s lyrics are still filled with paranoia and anxiety. The first lyric of opener ‘Orphans’ is “think I’m stranded but I don’t know where / got this diamond that don’t know how to shine”, suggesting that Beck’s self-belief is flailing. Album closer ‘Volcano’ reinforces the perspective of a man psychologically at odds with the world with lines like “I don’t know if I’m sane” and “I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased”. It’s hard see a reference to the  mixed reception to his recent output in these lines.

The collaboration with Danger Mouse has been incredibly fruitful: the album works as a coherent whole thanks to a consistency of tone and atmosphere and there’s a great deal of warmth in its analogue-dominated sound, which often recalls 1960s British Invasion and psych-folk. It’s a rewarding sound that can be peeled away with repeated listens.

Modern Guilt Promo

One of the albums musical triumphs is ‘Walls’, which opens with a an off-kilter breakbeat conflicting with strings, heightening the lyrical tension. ‘Replica’ and ‘Chemtrails’ see Beck step back into the mix, becoming as much an instrument as a vocalist, while ‘Gamma Ray’ and fuzzed-out rocker ‘Profanity Prayers’ show that  Beck is still a master of catchy pop. Like Odelay and Sea Change, its feels like a true collaboration between Beck and a producer, with a strong identity of its own.

Those expecting Beck to do a complete, stylistic U-turn may well be disappointed with ‘Modern Guilt’, but for me it only reinforces his genius.

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One Response to Falling Down on You

  1. Andy says:

    I find it interesting that he seems to be gradually refining his approach, melding all the styles of his past work into something far more orginal and entertaining than devoting entire albums to a complete stylistic shift. Its amusing how critics seem to enjoy painting his recent albums as ‘Beck’s stuck in a rut’ whilst also wishing he’d virtually remake Odelay. I found both Guero and The Information to be really good listens, perhaps hampered by the lack of someone willing to edit them. Whatever else DangerMouse has brought to the table this time, he certianly seems to have coaxed out some restraint. And yeh, I’d agree, genius totally reinforced.

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