When “Loser” broke in 1994, alt-rock was still sorting through the deluge of acts major labels pounced on in the post-Nirvana landscape. If anyone predicted they could tell which acts were going on to lasting careers (e.g. Radiohead, Sheryl Crow) and which acts were destined for footnote ‘90s relic status (e.g. Soup Dragons, Candlebox), they were lying.
That’s what made Beck‘s biography so intriguing. On first listen, “Loser” was as much a novelty song as Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl”. But repeated listens of his breakthrough album Mellow Gold showed an artist who sounded like he took all of the signature sounds of Los Angeles (punk, Latino-infused rock, hip-hop, and folk) and put them in a slow cooker and turned it on “low” for about 12 hours.
With Odelay, Beck solidified his status as a serious musician without losing an ounce of fun from his earlier tracks like “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack”. For about a decade, listeners got a new incarnation of Beck with each release. After Sea Change his albums became more “Beck-like”, as releases like Guero and The Information were less like reinventions and more like revisiting and refining previous sonic experiments. That trend continues with his latest album Morning Phase, released this week. His overall output has yielded two undisputed classics and plenty of “near-classic” material, but even his most uneven works are worth the time and money investment.
In an interview with the BBC, Beck said making The Information started off as painless and ended up being painful. Taking more than three years to complete, The Information may sound better than his early flurry of albums, but it suffers from bloat (clocking in at over an hour) and despite repeated listens, remains Beck’s least interesting album. Still, within this slog, you’ll find an unexpectedly beautiful string arrangement in “Think I’m in Love”, the great hip-hop tinged track “Cellphone’s Dead”, and the exhilarating percussion-fueled blast of the title track.
After the pre-release press and hearing a few tracks from Morning Phase, it was hard not to see the album as a sequel to Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change. Still, it’s unfair to immediately lump an artist’s similar-sounding album as a “sequel”. Fortunately, Beck alleviated everyone’s confusion by stating that Morning Phase was a companion piece to Sea Change. Call it his own Harvest Moon.
Morning Phase is packed with the melancholy sounds that enveloped Sea Change, but where that album is awash in heartbreak, a well-earned feeling of contentment populates his newest record. It’s an accessible album, but no singular song immediately grabs you. Instead, the overall mood of Morning Phase promises rewards for patient listeners.
Guero was the first Beck album that wasn’t a reinvention. Thus, it tended to be slightly derided upon its release as a retread. Hiring the Dust Brothers to co-produce the album didn’t exactly do Beck any favors for this argument. A few songs, like “E-Pro” and the surprisingly limp “Hell Yes” made you wish for a wild, left-field track like “Satan Gave Me a Taco”.
However, almost a decade later, Guero has aged remarkably well. “Girl” is a breezy, late-summer charmer with a gorgeous chorus. “Scarecrow” shuffles and stomps and even throws in a subtle nod to the keyboard/bass introduction to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. Listening to it now, Guero goes down as one of the best “artist revisiting past glories” albums since the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication.
Mellow Gold may have sounded like either a novelty album or a wonderful chaotic mess, but Beck’s then-cult fanbase knew that his major label debut revealed just a portion of what he was capable of offering. The folk leanings that were evident in some tracks on Mellow Gold are all over the place on One Foot in the Grave.
If Stereophonic Soulmanure (also released in 1994) was the frightening sound of the future of rock, One Foot in the Grave is a 60-year step backward with Beck treading into Alan Lomax territory. This album would later gain notoriety when Tom Petty opted to do a cover of “Asshole”. It may be unfocused, and some tracks borderline on unlistenable (e.g. “I Get Lonesome”), but One Foot in the Grave is one of the best reflections of Beck at the time when he was at his most fearless musically.
After the relative bloat of The Information, Beck opted for a “leave the audience wanting more” approach with Modern Guilt, his last album on the Interscope label. Co-produced by Danger Mouse, Modern Guilt is Beck’s leanest album. Tracks like “Gamma Ray” and the title track sound like they could have been recorded for a beach party album in the early ‘60s. Beck returning to his Sea Change sound is reason to celebrate, but spending an all-to-brief 30 minutes with Modern Guilt, you hope that this isn’t the final collaboration between Beck and Danger Mouse.