Modern Guilt: Beck to the future
The ‘coolest Scientologist in music’ may be pushing 40, but his new album is an innovative return to form.
For a musical chameleon who has tackled every genre from bluegrass to rap, coming up with a new sound for Beck’s umpteenth album was going to be tricky.
Teaming up with Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), Modern Guilt is an album that shows a more mature Beck Hansen who sings about climate change and refugees as opposed to jack-asses and soul suckin’ jerks. Whilst this isn’t what made us fall head over heels for the slacker kid back in ‘94, it’s certainly enough to remind us why he’s still the coolest Scientologist in music.
When Beck first burst on to the scene with his 1994 debut Mellow Gold, he instantly became a cult hero. Through mixing his folk music roots with surreal hip-hop lyricism, he showed himself to be a true original. Then with the triumph that was his 1996 follow-up Odelay, he proved he was more than a one-hit wonder. But the twenty-first century has seen Beck become a harmless hipster whose albums are predictably innovative yet rarely brilliant. Other than his 2002 acoustic gem, Sea Change, it seemed that the man who once wrote a song called ‘Satan Gave Me a Taco’ had simply run out of ideas.
Modern Guilt runs at just over 30 minutes, a product of tight-as-a-drum production and songwriting. The first track, ‘Orphans’, begins with pounding programmed drums until it fades into a subtle acoustic riff; it’s clear immediately that for the first time in years, Beck has been able to seamlessly meld his influences into a brand new sound. It’s all here: the hip-hop rhythms, the poignant lyricism, the driving riffs fused with an apparent penchant for Sixties pop. It’s Beck, alright, but not as we’ve ever heard him before.
While there’s really very little on the album you could call ‘classic Beck’, this doesn’t detract from the quality and variety of the material. The opening three tracks – ‘Orphans’, ‘Gamma Ray’ and ‘Chemtrails’ – offer completely different vibes and styles. ‘Chemtrails’ is a bleak and beautiful song that could have easily been a Pink Floyd off-cut; ‘Gamma Ray’ is the most danceable ditty about global warming you’ll hear all year. When the title track rolls around, with it’s back-to-basics composition, those unaware of Hansen’s previous works may think ‘Beck’ is the name of a retro, four-piece band. Here the strength of Modern Guilt shows itself, as Beck and Burton’s shared love of all things retro has been channelled into the production. The material is allowed to speak for itself with no need for over embellishment.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Beck (or Burton for that matter) without a detour into a more electronic palette. The monotone bleeps added under the grungy bass of ‘Youthless’ act as a way of paying homage to the electronic material Beck has made in the past as opposed to furthering it. The presence of such effects seems to make sense with the eclectic nature of Beck’s work. However, in an album which is intended to be focused and direct, they come off as out-of-place, sounding like an afterthought designed to make the album more recognisably of his canon.
More inspired experimentation comes in the form of the following track ‘Walls’, which with a mix of an electronic beat, fiddles, cellos and Cat Power’s vocals creates a playful yet melancholic sound. As Beck murmurs the line ‘Some days are worse than you can imagine’, lyric and music combine gloriously, as do the mix of retro and modern elements in the music itself. While you could argue that this is straying from the album’s retro style, with lyrics addressing the fate of mankind, Modern Guilt is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back.
This being a new Beck album, you do find yourself waiting for letdowns and though they are much more sparse than in his previous efforts, this is no Odelay. There are a few tracks that take a little of the shine off the apple. ‘Soul of a Man’, despite only being two-and-a-half minutes long, seems to go on forever. Also, on repeated listenings, some of the four-note riffs on the album begin to fuse into one. But any disappointments are completely compensated for by the gorgeous closing track, ‘Volcano’, which really showcases his honed songwriting skills. On this largely acoustic track, lines like ‘I’m tired of evil and all that it feeds’ show how far Beck has come.
Like it or not, Beck is gettin’ on: he’s married, he’s a dad and he’s pushing 40. A change was needed if he was going to stay valid. It’s heartbreaking to say it, but Beck has grown up. Lucky for us, Beck senior is still every bit as brilliant as he was in the 1990s. With Modern Guilt we can all breathe a sigh of relief and eagerly await what is to come from a truly talented songwriter.
Tom Slater took part in spiked‘s 2008 Journalism Summer School.
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