Monday, March 30, 2009

Dear Doctor Doom: Beck as Apocalyptic Prophet on "Modern Guilt"

Something horrible has happened to Beck, or so it would seem. Maybe it's the vintage '94 Kurt Cobain look he's got going, or the all-black clothing. Maybe it's his inability to hold a normal conversation during radio interviews or his recently lethargic concerts, which, as he told Spin, he doesn't want to play anymore. Or his disowning the ADD masterpiece Midnite Vultures, refusing to play many of the songs in concert any longer. I've already read a couple reviews that point this out, but this guy used to have fun playing music.

Beck is probably this generation's answer to David Bowie, regardless of how you feel about his music. In fact, I'd argue Beck shares Bowie's same hate-to-love-him appeal and incorrigible habit of co-opting underground musical trends (rap, hip-hop, "anti-"folk, noise, bossanova) into listener-friendly-genre-blending showoffy records. And, like Bowie, Beck's great at playing parts: the detached "slacker" who made Mellow Gold and Odelay, the folkie who comfortably made K Records his home on One Foot in the Grave, the funk sex god who jizzed out Midnite Vultures, and later, the broken-hearted country troubadour who weeped his way through breakup record Sea Change. Reviews at the time applauded Sea Change for eliminating the detachment that runs through much of Mr. Hansen's work, instilling it with immediate and direct honesty instead - apparently oblivious to the fact that the songs were two years old and the singer was already engaged to another woman by the time it was released.

But three years and one conversion to Scientology later, Beck was playing a part that defied expectation: old Beck. 2005's Guero was a valiant attempt to not only genre-blend but Beck-blend. The Dust Brothers were back, so more Odelay-style beaty tunes with anthemic choruses were in order, like "E-Pro" and "Girl." People seem to love it when he raps, so Beck spat out the completely recycled crowd pleaser "Hell Yes" and kitschy Spanglish track "Que Onda Guero." If you liked Beck's turn for the moody on the last album - and some must have, judging by its five-star rating in Rolling Stone - he gave you the overwrought "Broken Drum" and plodding drug downer "Farewell Ride." Going after the "Cut Your Hair" formula of having catchy, semi-wordless choruses, songs featured refrains that shed Beck's Dadaist wordplay in favor of crackers like "Na-na, na na na na naaaa," "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and "Heyyyy, my summmah gahhhhl." A good deal of the other songs' choruses were the repetition of the song's title - perhaps an homage to Wesley Willis?

I liked Guero a lot when it came out, spinning the disc throughout the summer. But wasn't there something a little disheartening about somebody like Beck so obviously resting on his laurels? When I saw him play that summer (with the girl who may or may not have been the Heather mentioned in "Mixed Bizness" - no shit), there seemed to be something calculated about his every move, including him ruining "Loser" with a shitty drum solo. "Those were some Home Depot beats," he told us, in a vague accent. Suddenly, you couldn't see him without his trusty old black Silvertone guitar, his new signature axe, apparently. He played harmonium in the middle of the show, wore vintage clothing, talked with a bit of recent slang, and he played Beck. Hey, it's Beck! He wears funky old clothes, plays old guitars and a bunch of other instruments, makes sly jokes and sort of pretends to be black every one in a while. You know him, you love him, and he sells lots of records.

On the following year's The Information it seemed obvious from the previews, singles and iTunes snippets that that year he'd be playing "old rapping Beck produced by Nigel Godrich," so I gave that one a miss completely. I gave up on old new Beck. Or new old Beck. Even though it seemed like a lot of time and effort went into those records, they still seemed like they were skirting on the edge of self-parody, and most definitely entrenched in the world of self-plagiarism.

So it was with little enthusiasm I received the announcement of last year's Modern Guilt. The fact that he was collaborating with Danger Mouse seemed cheap to me, and the title sounded condescending. Was this going to be some stab at addressing socio-political issues and widespread paranoia from his mansion on the hill? Who gives a shit? I wondered.

For once, the radio convinced me otherwise. The second part of summer in Los Angeles typically involves darker, muggier weather and requires music in the same vein, and boy, did "Gamma Ray" ever do the trick. Sure, it had that agitated surf beat kicking it off, but it quickly moved into doomsday territory, with Beck intoning a descending minor scale raga-like melody again and again, lyrics giving a hint to the fear of nuclear annihliation metropolitain populations try to ignore. It is the first Beck song that one could call great in some time. And for once, I heard something in his music that had never quite been there before: genuine despair. Or so I thought. Intrigued, I snapped up the album.

From the beginning Modern Guilt is one elongated sigh. Lead track "Orphans" features a hook that Beck must be too out of it to realize is a soft-sung interpolation of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," and a virtually inaudible Cat Power backing vocal. The song is at its most naked when Beck breaks rhyme schemes to interject lines like "I'll stand beside myself so I'm not alone," which on record and lyric sheet alike stick out like a sore thumb. Within the first verse we get the line "If we can learn how to freeze ourselves alive/We could learn to leave these burdens to burn," essentially pointing this certain attitude Beck maintains throught the album: that in a world nearing apocalypse that we're already alienated from, the solution is further alienation. Or something like that.

Curiouser and curiouser is the title track, imbued with more subdued paranoia and withdrawl against a mid-60s British invasion stomp. Consider the chorus:

Modern guilt, I'm stranded with nothing
Modern guilt, I'm under lock and key
Misapprehension turning into convention
Don't know what I've done
But I feel ashamed

I originally wanted to tie this review in with any possible, erm, side effects Mr. Hansen could be experiencing due to his life in the Church of Scientology, but scrapped the idea due to fear of failing to make any real connections and harassment from Scientologists. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from the lyrics, I suppose. Regardless, "Modern Guilt" seems to come from a genuine place of extreme fear, a cry behind some impenetrable wall. And Beck has no trouble laying it on thick: "These people talk about impossible things/And I'm falling out of the conversation/And I'm a pawn piece in a human shield."

Unsurprsingly, the album suffers when Beck retreats back into old Beck mode and techniques. "Chemtrails" is amped-up Sea Change material, with more than a slight nod to those '67 Beatles records felt in the "Strawberry Fields"-like false ending. Its cousin on the record, closer "Volcano," is slightly more effective, all suspected Xenu allusions aside, but I really think Beck would do good to ditch those David Campbell string arrangements. I mean, sure, "Paper Tiger" was rad, ripping off Histoire de Melody Nelson and all, but....whoops, he's Beck's father.

Luckily, tracks like "Youthless" and "Profanity Prayers" really pick up the slack. "Youthless" is an unembarassing funk workout that finds Beck again easing into his new role as Mr. Doom 'n Gloom, repeating "helpless...nothing...nothing...youthless...nothing...." "Profanity Prayers," involving the most surrealism and metaphor-laden words of the whole affair actually brings the riffs, but with the same chilling, detatched veneer you find throught the album's cobwebs of increasingly inscrutable despair and unfortunate premonitions. I wonder at times if we're entering Beck's Station to Station phase, where televisions eat girlfriends and it would not be out of place for him to look out the window mid-interview to fearfully exclaim, "They're coming."

But perhaps by taking the sentiment of the music at face value, the joke's already on me. Former bandmate, Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne said, "When you hear [Beck's] songs, you think he must really have some tender feelings, but then you find out it's a made-up thing." One must remember with an artist who prides himself on being somewhat impenetrable, all commercial success aside, any seemingly personal move can always be a red herring (see Dylan, Stephin Merritt). On the song "Modern Guilt," Beck offered:
"I'd recorded about 10 or 15 songs and then I did the song 'Modern Guilt' and I remember my engineer [Drew Brown] and Danger Mouse just lighting up. It was the first time I got a reaction on anything we were working on. It just felt that there was something in that song that rang true for everyone around and what we were doing and it felt like it was definitely a point where it was like, 'OK, now we're on to something, this is what it's about.' After that, I started just getting rid of all the songs that sounded like they could be something that could be on Midnite Vultures or Guero, things that were a bit more playful or humourous or however you want to qualify it, and kind of pursuing just the feeling that that song had....So that's the song that really shaped the record."
Somewhere in the Modern Guilt booklet, you can see a picture of Beck, large black hat shielding his eyes, with a ghostly shadow of his profile superimposed on the side. No picture could better sum up the last seven years of the man's career: he's here but not, you can see different sides of him but it's always obscured and in the end you've gained nothing from the experience - at least, nothing you can put your finger on. He's kinda down but it might be a total act. He means it but he doesn't really mean it. And his eyes either avoid your gaze or are fixed firmly on the "EXIT" sign depicted on the back cover of his latest album.


Emily said...

Nice blog entry! Modern Guilt sounds kind of nice in the iTunes sampling...

moontaco said...

Sorry for the late comment--I just found this (while Googling Beck + Scientology, lol). Anyway, I really enjoyed this review. I agree with much of what you said.