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.