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.