Monday, July 28, 2008

Record Review: Beck


Modern Guilt

[2008, DGC]

The pairing of reputable, once enigmatic producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) and Beck Hansen is a musical omnivore’s dream. Burton has collaborated with Cee-Lo as Gnarls Barkeley, and worked with artists as diverse as Neutral Milk Hotel, The Gorillaz, MC Jemini, and The Black Keys. Hansen’s range of tastes seems tantamount to Burton’s. His watershed album, Odelay, was a buffet of blues, folk, dance, hip-hop, r&b, and much more. A collaborative work between two such wide-ranging musicians threatened to be even more inconsistent than the past few Beck records combined. However, Hansen and Danger Mouse emerged from the studio with the best, most cohesive Beck album since 2002’s Sea Change. 

        Beck’s past two albums were sprawling and contained too many tiring, tedious moments. Modern Guilt clocks in at a concise 33 minutes, but feels much more complete and accomplished than the fifty minute Guero or the hour-long The Information. Danger Mouse’s production lends the album a warm quality. The heavily reverb’d, atmospheric production that defined Sea Change is still implemented here, but the arrangements are relatively streamlined, and the instrumentation is much more minimal.

        Despite both Beck and Danger Mouse’s affinity for hip-hop, the album is surprisingly bereft of its influence. The music is almost strictly rock oriented, and his lyrics are never delivered in his trademark, clearly intoned rap. Instead, Modern Guilt finds Beck approximating a bevy of classic rock sounds. Standout track “Chemtrails” recalls psychedelia, with its pummeling drum fills and lush ambience, and the surf-rock drums on “Gamma Ray” would sound appropriate on a Dick Dale album. The propulsive bass line and motorik drums on “Profanity Prayers” sound like an update on Neu!-style Krautrock, and the pounding stomp and palm muted guitar chug of “Soul of a Man” draw inspiration from early metal. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Beck album without some sort of radical genre deviation. “Walls,” with its soulful oboe loops and pitch-shifted vocal samples, sounds like it was written to be sung an octave higher by Cee-Lo Green, and The glitchy, overdriven Drum and Bass rhythm of “Replica” is indebted to the early days of IDM.

        As with any Beck album, the lyrics on Modern Guilt are dense and abstruse. A precise interpretation is difficult to deduce, but the overarching themes and tone are very clear. On the title track, he sings about being ashamed of committing an unknown crime. This Kafka-esque sense of existential malaise is felt from “Orphans” through “volcano”. Most songs deal with uncertainty and dread that accompany a foreseen apocalypse. His sense of helplessness is heard most clearly in “Chemtrails” and “Modern guilt”. On the former, Beck sings of watching a “sea full of people, already drowned”; the latter sees him feeling “like a pawn piece in a human shield”. The root of Hansen’s concerns seems to lie with government and religion, institutions he’s plumbed for lyrical fodder for many years. Marrying troubled thoughts to bouncy, often-ebullient music is nothing new to pop music, but the irony feels especially strong here.

        With Modern Guilt, Beck is the most focused he’s been for years. His songwriting remains very impressive, and his interpretation of established styles is intriguing. My only complaint is in his lack of new lyrical direction. Apocalyptic dread and paranoia make for great post-modern, 21st century music, but Hansen’s been singing about such emotion for years now. This complaint aside, Modern Guilt is a great record, and Beck’s best in a long time.


Buy It

No comments: