The Beck File

With the release of Beck’s new album Morning Phase this week, it’s a great time to take a look over Beck’s long, varied, and often bizarre career.  Imagine telling someone back in 1994 that the guy who sang (or rapped, your call) “With the plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables/Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose” would still have a career twenty years later, and more than that, was a highly-respected musician; that person who was the recipient of your madness would be more than justified in attempting to have you committed.

Hopefully that scenario I presented only exists in the hypothetical world, because CrazyPants was actually correct.  Here we are, two decades after “Loser” and Beck is now an elder statesman, whose every move the music press documents and analyzes for greater meaning, even if his album sales have declined over the years.  As of the writing of this article, Morning Phase has a MetaCritic rating of 82 based on 43 reviews, his highest score since the release of Midnite Vultures in 1999.

With this release, and because we now live in a culture that is obsessed with mining over the past (especially the recent past), there has been a flurry of thinkpieces and longreads about the career of Beck and what this album means, most notably its relation to his somber album Sea Change.  And what better way for a fledgling new publication to distinguish itself than by writing a variation that other more popular outlets have already done?  We won’t be looking at the new album specifically (we’re saving that for its own review), but instead taking a closer look at each of Beck’s previous albums.  Really, it’s the least we could do considering how the entire week before was spent on listening to those albums.  Think of it as an actually decent Consumer Guide, coming from a guy who doesn’t stubbornly insist that In The City was The Jam’s best album.

It would be a fair assumption that the proper place to start with any retrospective is from the beginning, but it’s somewhat of a difficult task with Beck, since he had a few albums before his major label debut Mellow Gold.  These on the whole amounted to glorified demos, and while there are a few gems here and there, I never really have the energy to sit through entire albums of alternative folk songs.  There are a few interesting songs on One Foot In The Grave, and if you get the re-released version, you get the gem of an early version of “It’s All In Your Mind”, which would eventually be used for Sea Change.  Beyond that, I would only recommend the early material if you’re a completist or are really into weirdo-folk, and if that’s the case, all the more power to you.

So it’s probably a good idea to start with Mellow Gold, and to answer the question that those who only know about Beck in passing–is there anything worthwhile on the album besides “Loser”?  Yes!  Even though I would personally rank it on the lower end of the Beck Album Scale, it’s definitely not an album with just one single and then filler through all the rest.  You do get glimpses of the genre-splicing that Beck would become famous for, though the highlights tend to be variations on folk (my shorthand in this case for simple acoustic chords).  “Pay No Mind” and “Blackhole” are great examples of this.  And Beck’s humor in his lyrics are evident throughout the record.  In other words, there was a good reason why you would consistently see “Beercan”, “Soul Suckin Jerk”, and “Fuckin With My Head” in people’s Napster directory.

 

 

Even though Mellow Gold was pretty successful, no one was prepared for the leap forward that Beck would take with the release of Odelay, including his record label and Beck himself.  Its success was no accident–the record was filled with great singles, and the album as a whole still holds up today.  Odelay manages the incredible feat of sounding both “of its time” and “timeless”: there’s a definite mid-90’s quality to the music, in the sense that there was an attitude of “we can mix whatever styles we want together and throw in some ironic detachment and who cares if you get it”, but you could also release those same songs today and they would fit right in your average rock radio playlist (Note: this is meant to be a compliment, not a slam).

A fair amount of credit should be given to the Dust Brothers, who did for Beck what they did for the Beastie Boys.  Their background in hip-hop shines through in their beats and heavy use of samples.  Once you’ve internalized the album, it’s fun to pick out where different elements came from (who knew that Them Again would have been such a huge influence?).  But as I’ve argued before, the mashing up wasn’t done just for the process itself; the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

The same is true of the album itself.  It has an almost recursive quality, in that each song may seem like it belongs to a certain genre, from country to hip-hop to punk, but that also within each song there were multiple elements from different genres to evoke that particular feel.  The effect is that the album doesn’t get in a rut attempting to mine the same sounds over and over again, but it’s also done in a way that seems effortless and not the result of merely a short attention span.

I should also note that the Deluxe Edition re-release of Odelay is worth it just to have the song “Deadweight” on the record.  I mean, there’s really no reason why you should attempt to track down the soundtrack to A Life Less Ordinary, and I bet by now you could find the reissue at a used record store for practically the same price as the regular album.  Also, an underrated benefit to buying the Deluxe Edition is that the secret track “Computer Rock” is separate from “Ramshackle”, so now it’s easier enjoy that song without being assaulted by that noisy bit at the end.

Odelay may have been the commercial success, but I would argue that Mutations was actually Beck’s best album overall.  The crazy part is that when it was released, it wasn’t given much of a promotional push, because the record label did not want it to be considered the “official” follow-up to the smash hit Odelay.  Looking back now, that strategy doesn’t seem to have made such sense, because in many ways it followed the same template of genre-hopping, just with different detours into previously unexplored styles and with live instruments.  The lyrics were as biting as ever, but this time it was more straightforward and without a few doses of irony.

In the end, I end up choosing Mutations over Odelay because it makes for a more cohesive album.  I know I just praised the eclectic nature of Odelay earlier, but Mutations is able to accomplish the same feat seamlessly.  Both albums did it well, but on Odelay you were conscious of the shift in styles.  It may also be that I appreciate the more subdued, melancholic tinge to the album.  While “Tropicalia” is an undeniable highlight (and perfectly placed in the middle of the album), the album is loaded with a lot of raggedy blues and folk-inflected songs, like “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”, “Bottle of Blues”, and “O Maria”.  At the same time, the mood never becomes unbearable, and Beck never wallows in sadness.  It’s an attitude that acknowledges weariness and cynicism, but doesn’t find them to be an end unto themselves.

(I should also note that the hidden track on Mutations, “Diamond Bollocks”, is by far the best secret song that Beck ever did, and is a standout instrumental track for any artist.)

Midnite Vultures ended up being pitched as the “official” follow-up to Odelay, and that gimmick kind of backfired.  It put additional pressure on an album that due to its unconventional influences was bound to be more of a cult sensation than a cross-sectional smash.  And I have to admit that it took a while for the album to grow on me, and to this day remains one of the Beck albums that I listen to the least.

Of course, the big takeaway from Midnite Vultures was that this was Beck in his funky/sex machine persona, something that we caught a glimpse of before in “The New Pollution”.  It worked brilliantly with the lead single “Sexx Laws”, which is just way too much fun to listen to without a smile on your face.  However, the next two singles (“Mixed Bizness” and “Nicotine & Gravy”) covered similar ground without adding too much, and since they appear back-to-back-to-back on the album, it becomes a bit repetitive.  The album actually recovers later on, when the funk turns a little darker, but by then we’re missing some of the energy of the early tracks.  It’s a damn shame too, because I imagine a lot of people missed out on the closer “Debra” as a result, and it may be the best song on the album.  It’s a perfect slow jam, and the lyrics have just the right amount of cheese (I will never not laugh at the line “Lady, step inside my Hyundai”).

Beck would shift gears once again with the release of Sea Change.  This is the album that you’ve probably heard mention a lot recently, as its the one that Morning Phase has been compared to in every single press release and review.  It’s also pretty easy to summarize in a few words, which makes it an easy reference to use as shorthand: it’s a sad-bastard singer/songwriter breakup record, with a lot of acoustic guitars and a lot of strings.

However, the shift shouldn’t have come as a total surprise to fans of Beck, as there were seeds of this album present in his previous work.  Beck had his roots as a folkie, and there were a lot of dark undercurrents to his lyrics.  If you take a look at his lyrics from previous albums, including Odelay and Mutations, there are a lot of references to death, suicide, and other dark topics.  Even the straightforward take on these issues could be seen in earlier songs like “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” (or even taken directly from that earlier era, as was the case with “It’s All In Your Mind”).

And to call it simply a singer/songwriter record also shortchanges all the incredible instrumentation on the record, from extra guitar parts to glockenspiel to piano and so on.  There are several incredibly beautiful moments on the record, perhaps none moreso than the ending to “Lonesome Tears”, where the song elevates from a mournful ballad to a spiritual catharsis, with the help of a perpetually-escalating string figure at the end.

Beck would shift gears once again with the release of Guero, which was seen by the press at the time as a sequel to Odelay, mainly due to the return of the Dust Brothers as producers.  This is kind of a ridiculous proposition when you listen to the albums back-to-back, especially since synthesis of different genres has always been present in Beck’s work, regardless of the use of samples.

It did however see a shift in Beck’s attitude from the somber and serious mood of Sea Change back to the more irreverent jokester of an earlier era.  The lyrics became more indirect and filled with more jokes and non sequiturs, as irony once again became a potent tool in Beck’s arsenal.  Even in the album’s darkest moments, there was a bit of sunshine–take for example the song “Girl”, which sonically sounds like the perfect care-free breezy summer song, but when you look at the lyrics is clearly about a killer’s eye for his potential victim.

I’m a bigger fan of Guero than most people, so maybe take this analysis with a grain of salt.  I find it to be a nice combination of the Odelay and Mutations era, with the right mix of the sample-heavy fun of the former mixed with the seriousness and focus of the latter.  You definitely see the influence of Odelay with the rocking “E-Pro” (the distorted guitar riff strongly echoes that of “Devil’s Haircut”) and “Que Onda Guero”, and the presence of Mutations in songs like “Missing” (with a similar tropical rhythm and feel to “Tropicalia”) and “Earthquake Weather”.

The highlight of the album in my mind has to be “Broken Drum”, a devastatingly gorgeous ballad written in the wake of Elliott Smith’s untimely death.  Musically, it builds off of “Jennifer” by Faust, but instead of focusing on repetition, there is a closure to the chord progression.  The weary resignation of the vocal also emphasizes the drag in the music, as opposed to the more robotic approach of Faust.  Stylistically, it also matches the lyrics of fondly recalled hazy memories that take on a new meaning with the recent death.  Not only is the original incredibly powerful, but the Boards of Canada remix might even be an improvement on the original (if you get the special edition of Guero, it’s included with the album, and you don’t have to get the largely unnecessary Guerolito remix album).

The Information is an album that has managed to confound me over the years, though that’s probably not the fault of the album itself.  There are no left field surprises and it’s all pretty much straightforward, a mix of some of the funk attitude from Midnite Vultures with some of the more stripped-down production of Beck’s earlier work.  The quality that I notice most when I listen to the album is the spaciness–not in a way that should invoke psychedelic images, but in the space between each instrument.  Each element can be heard clearly, from the guitar to the vocal to the drums, with little bleedthrough between them.

The low-key nature of the album then makes it appear almost as the Mutations-like counterpart to Guero‘s Odelay, but it never succeeds in reaching the heights of any of those albums.  The general subdued nature of the work allows for consistent quality, but few songs truly stand out (with the rollicking “Strange Apparition” being the exception that proves the rule).  The singles “Nausea” and “Think I’m In Love” present an interesting paradox: on their own, they’re pretty great, and make perfect sense when considering the radio audience, but in the context of the album, they don’t rise that much above the rest of the material.  That strange quality might be the single most identifiable quality of the album.

Beck has worked with a lot of producers in his career, notably the Dust Brothers (as highlighted above) and Nigel Godrich (MutationsSea Change, and most clearly identifiable with The Information), but the impact of the producer is probably most notable on Modern Guilt.  We covered this a little bit with The Danger Mouse File, but the fingerprints of Brian Burton are all over this record.  There’s a great bounce to this album, even on spacey tracks like “Chemtrails”, where the free-form verses veer into avalanches of drums and great running bass lines.

The album also never has the chance to wear out its welcome after clocking in at a little over a half hour, but there was never really a chance of that occurring with the energy in the songs.  When you break it down, the way that Modern Guilt accomplishes this is pretty remarkable.  Beck is often subdued in his vocal performance, and the volume of the instrumentals rarely rise up and overpower the listener.  Yet there is an unmistakable intensity to a lot of the music, from the gritty bluesy stomp of “Soul of a Man” to the skittering drums of “Replica”.  And often there is just a simple bounce to the music, as seen in the title track.

It seems that most people interpreted this stylistic decision as a lack of ambition, but in reality there was a subtle genius to the album.  I can see why some would casually dismiss Modern Guilt, but over the years it has proven to be one of Beck’s better albums, either from a purely fun listening perspective or a deeper more substantially analytic view.

******

As for Morning Phase, we’ll have a review next week now that I officially have a physical copy.  After a couple of listens via streaming, I’m already ready to say that those early pieces which called it a sequel to Sea Change are just as lacking as the ones that did the same for Guero and Odelay, though I can see the reasoning behind it.  It’s interesting though that in a lot of reviews and essays critics are attempting to divine a Unified Theory of Beck or determine which “persona” is the one true Beck, instead of opting for the simpler explanation that all his albums reflect different aspects of his personality and are all part of the same person.  The funky hipster coexists peacefully with the mournful balladeer and lives in harmony with the hip-hop slacker.  In many ways, Beck’s career reminds me of the many eras of David Bowie’s career and the different personas he would adopt for certain albums.  I’m not sure anyone would claim any singular character is the one true Bowie, and I would argue the same should apply for Beck.  And to think I came up with this argument before I found this video of him performing “Sound and Vision”.

And to think, it may be that I end up reviewing two Beck albums this year (though we definitely won’t have another extensive retrospective like this one).

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