Beck in black
If you were to ask me to name one song that personally encapsulates the golden era of the early 90s, it wouldn’t be Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give It Away,’ or Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive,’ or even ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ While those are certainly all great, timeless hits of my generation (and lord Jeezus did I just feel my age typing that), the one song that will invariably send me reeling back into the salad years of flannel shirt and concert tee ensembles, driving aimlessly around southern New Jersey while either on the way to or coming back from a Wawa hoagie run, before MTV started showing garbage like A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila is Beck’s ‘Loser.’
Consider that up until ‘Loser’ came out, the top songs on the radio were slick, vapid, overproduced cheese logs like ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ and the lethal ‘I Will Always Love You.’ What an epic moment in music history the first time ‘Loser,’ a grimy, jumbled mess of brilliance in which the singer, apropos of absolutely nothing, yells out “GET CRAZY WITH THE CHEEZ WHIZ!” at one point, was played on top 40 radio. I was taken with it the very first time I heard it, simply because it was so wonderfully different. Even the video had the cheap, grainy look of something that was filmed in someone’s back yard, as opposed to the glossy exercises in ego many performers were putting out, some with budgets larger than feature-length films.
The album that spawned ‘Loser,’ Mellow Gold , ultimately became part of a veritable Renaissance period in alternative music, coming out at the same time as Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral , Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, and Weezer’s debut. Yet, ‘Loser’ was generally perceived as somewhat of a novelty hit, something that would coast on its goofy charm for just so long before fading into obscurity, leaving young Beck Hansen wherever the members of Right Said Fred and Deee-Lite are today (most likely being interviewed for VH1’s umpteenth ‘Top 100 Whatever Whenever’ special). Doubters and critics were silenced however with the release of 1996’s Odelay , an album far more polished than Mellow Gold but without a bit of Beck’s own special brand of weirdness missing. It’s hard to choose the best moments in Odelay; it’s one long best moment, from the opening track, the hit ‘Devil’s Haircut’ to the seven and a half minute long closer ‘Ramshackle.’ Winning a Grammy for best alternative album, it’s also in my opinion the best album of the 90s. Five years later he’d earn another superlative in my book with the release of Sea Change, a low-key, mournful change of pace from his previous work and the single ‘Lost Cause,’ my pick for the best breakup song of all time (followed closely by Ween’s ‘Baby Bitch’).
Following up Sea Change with Guero, which I liked but apparently a lot of other fans didn’t, and The Information, which I didn’t care for but apparently a lot of other fans did (shows you what I know), Beck returns with Modern Guilt, his eighth studio album and the first working with Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, is behind such other awe-inspiring acts of musical excellence as Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz. As far as a collaboration between Beck and Danger Mouse is concerned, Modern Guilt is a bit of a disappointment. As far as albums in general are concerned, however, it’s still pretty good.
If you can’t abide the music of the Beach Boys or Jan & Dean, I’d advise you to skip Modern Guilt, as much of it sounds like surf music with an only slightly modern edge. I can take or leave surf music personally, as much of it tends to sound alike after a while; I like it here mostly for the same reason I liked ‘Loser,’ in that it’s a refreshing change of pace from the other crap clogging the airwaves right now. While listening to some of the tracks, particularly ‘Gamma Rays’ and the opener ‘Orphans,’ the phrase “sun-drenched harmonies” came to my mind. I thought to myself, “Where did that come from? That’s pretty good, I should write that down,” and then I remembered that I read it in the highly amusing The Rock Snob Dictionary, a collection of mostly nonsensical, invariably pretentious phrases music critics and fans use to come off as more well-versed than everyone else. I Googled “sun-drenched harmonies” and got dozens of hits, used to describe the music of everyone from the Eagles to R.E.M. to Phantom Planet, as well as a whole bunch of bands no one’s ever heard of. What is a “sun-drenched harmony” exactly? Well, my best guess is that it sounds vaguely like the Beach Boys, upbeat and mellow, reminiscent of palm trees and suntan oil, the romanticized sound of southern California. Throw in a couple more words like “jangly” and “power pop” and you’ve got yourself a music review, constructed entirely out of pure nonsense.
ANYWAY, not that I’m doing any better with the reviewing (but I’m not getting paid for it, so I’m exempt), yes, Modern Guilt does have, for lack of a better phrase, a sun-drenched sound to it. Sunny, evocative of the giant ball of hydrogen and helium at the center of our universe, you get the idea. However, the music is a deceitfully lighthearted accompaniment to the dark lyrics (“Cast out these creatures of woe/shatter themselves/fighting the fire with your bare hands,” “I don’t know if if I’m sane/but there’s a ghost in my heart/that’s trying to see in the dark”). While Beck’s lyrics tend to sound like the rantings of a schizophrenic (one of my favorite songs from him includes the immortal line “in the chain smoke Kansas flashdance ass pants”), here it’s apparent that this is a world-weary Beck, distressed at the state of the world and softening the blow of his cynicism with some soothing melodies. It works, most of the time, though Modern Guilt could have used at least one balls-out hard-driving track, like last year’s single-only release ‘Timebomb.’ Alas, much of the album is relatively low-key, with a couple of the tracks hard to distinguish from each other, and its first single ‘Chemtrails’ a surprising bit of a snooze. What ‘Chemtrails’ lacks, however, is compensated quite efficiently with the previously mentioned ‘Gamma Rays’ and ‘Profanity Prayers,’ the closest the album comes to actually rocking out. Those will be the two tracks I’ll likely play the most often, and at the loudest volume.
I don’t expect Modern Guilt will win Beck any new fans, but at the same time it won’t drive away the old ones either. It’s not the best work he’s put out, but if nothing else it shows that, nearly twenty years into his career, he’s still evolving and experimenting, with results that are never calculating, and always interesting.