Music

Beck: Modern Guilt

The much-anticipated collaboration with Danger Mouse doesn’t live up to the past accolades of either artist.


Beck

Modern Guilt

Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2008-07-08
UK Release Date: 2008-07-07
Amazon
iTunes

I don’t mean to suggest midlife crisis for Beck, but his new release, Modern Guilt, doesn't compare to the genre-defying musical precedent he has established for himself. Whereas his preceding body of work surprised, soothed and flowed with resounding consistency, his latest unassertively lingers in redundancy.

When Beck was first thrust into the spotlight in 1994, his blues, folk, hip-hop, electronic, psychedelia melting-pot of a sound was sui generis, and the overwhelming success of the epochal single “Loser” immediately became the unofficial anthem of the unofficial “slacker” generation. He was also dismissed as a one-hit wonder. Pairing his eclectic writing style with production duo the Dust Brothers, Beck yielded the profoundly dynamic Odelay. Grammys in tow, Beck’s next album, Mutations, was an earnest acoustic tableau, with songs like “Bottle of Blues".

Once again alternating between party mixes and folk revival, Beck’s Midnite Vultures and Sea Changes respectively, were the developments to his previous expositions. And his last two releases, Guero and The Information (produced by the Dust Brothers and Nigel Godrich respectively) were equally well received.

An inevitable collaboration of like-minded souls, Modern Guilt is the resulting collusion with super-producer Danger Mouse. The problem is that Beck, on the majority of the album, compromises the ethos that previously defined his catalogue: experimentation and synthesis under graceful melodies. Instead for much of the album he repeatedly slips into indistinguishable cadences.

Part of the problem is that Danger Mouse’s strategy -- his signature go-go rhythm (oom pah pa oom pa) over a simple but prominent bass line -- is beaten to a pulp in its overuse here, and in pop generally. This is a disappointing revelation, as Danger Mouse’s retrograde sampling repertoire and deft application seem like a natural compliment to Beck’s eclectic motifs. But what’s unfortunate is that when Danger Mouse provides reduced beats, he belies the polyrhythmic flourish Beck naturally emanates.

Still, Beck does forge some quality tracks. The short, violin-laden “Walls” is a cynical reflection of repugnant foreign policy and occupation. Beck morosely sings, “You got warheads stacked in the kitchen / You treat distraction like it’s a religion / With a rattlesnake step in your rhythm.” Cat Power’s siren-like background vocals sound like a Chinese bowed gourd instrument and the drums have a genuine garage sound evoking Beck’s “slacker” days while the lyrics are distinctively active.

Opening track “Orphans” and the title track both employ throwback psych-rock themes, though the former has a more acoustic blend. It’s also one of the fewer major toned tunes, lending the line “If I wake up and see my maker coming” more divine hope than normal. “Modern Guilt” meanders between tones. A creeping guitar line between verses sounds like Beck’s creeping conscience: “Don’t know what I’ve done but I feel ashamed.”

In general, melancholy melodies are supplemented by production less effect-oriented than in the past. It’s almost as if Danger Mouse and Beck adhered to an electronic sample quota on each track. On “Modern Guilt” it’s a pixilated bugle -- not unlike the next-level beeps in Tetris -- that nudges the track forward while on “Orphans” they limit themselves to reverse-fade inserts and some galactic zaps.

Dense production is resonant on two intriguing tracks. Creating an ethereal falsetto-rich haze, the conspiracy addled “Chemtrails” gains serious momentum over bursting drum rolls. It dissolves into a cacophonous outro full of No Age-esque guitar growls and screams that evoke vintage Beck. “Replica”, is inherently dub, with Danger Mouse borrowing heavily from the elusive Burial. Over a set of complex, heavyset, circling beats, Beck sings evanescently and also contributes marimba, amongst other instruments, to the layering sounds.

Other tracks fall measurably short. Listening to the beats on “Gamma Ray” and “Profanity Prayers” the difference is imperceptible, and “Youthless” just sinisterly re-interprets the bass line to Marley’s “Could You Be Loved". Refreshingly sparse, “Volcano” ends the album in Sea Change-like fashion: somber, demure vocals over soaring string arrangements and concise beats.

An ostensible reference to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Beck’s cover art is more assertively informal, to the point of an incorrectly cropped Blue Note album. This unpretentious attitude permeates the album’s writing and terse production whose results are self-evident: it lacks the unique resonating timbres one is accustomed to with Beck. That Beck’s adventures with Danger Mouse don’t measure up to the indelible successes of his Dust Brothers collaborations leaves me stranded, patiently waiting what will come next -- another production-guru alliance? Beck at 40 with Four Tet has a nice ring to it.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.