Review: Beck’s “Modern Guilt”

  Counting his two independent releases, “Modern Guilt” is Beck’s tenth album. This time he’s teamed with Danger Mouse and together they have crafted a quick tribute to sixties psychedelia.  At a mere 33-and-a-half minutes, “Modern Guilt” is Beck’s briefest record to date, but that’s the idea.  It’s meant to be a back-to-vinyl sort of exercise.  These ten tracks are all here for a reason. 

When “Mellow Gold” came out, it was easy to underestimate and misunderstand Beck. Who was this artsy guy trying to mix elements of punk, blues, folk and hip-hop into a strange stew?  His delivery made it hard to take him seriously.

When he recorded his critical breakthrough, “Odelay,” he kept this in mind and was able to focus all those elements into something unique and dynamic, thus proving his doubters wrong.  He was still having fun, but there was now an earnest drive that wasn’t there before.  “Odelay” is a classic.  Actually, every album he has done since “Odelay” is classic.  Beck may be the quintessential singer-songwriter of our time, and it’s partly due to the fact that he’s been so eclectic. The cut and paste style of “Odelay” and to a lesser extent “Mellow Gold” won him fans.  Meanwhile, there was a folky singer-songwriter side to him present on his indie release “One Foot In the Grave.  He later fleshed this sound out on his almost Donovan-esque album “Mutations” and eventually brought it to an apex on his dead-serious masterpiece “Sea Change.”  Mixed in there though was a man who obviously looked up to people like Prince, George Clinton, James Brown and just about anyone signed to Stax.  That’s where you get a strangely entrancing record like “Midnite Vultures.” Mix these influences with a knack for sonic experimentation and you have something truly innovative.  You could argue that all of these elements came together on his last two records. “Guero” was a lyrically dark party record informed by the sadness of its predecessor, “Sea Change,” and “The Information” was a semi-claustrophobic romp through a blues-rock and electro-clash tinged anti-utopia.  So, where does that leave “Modern Guilt?” Really, like every one of Beck’s records, it stands on its own, containing its own sound, but it’s closer to his singer-songwriter side. 

For the most part with a few exceptions, ever since “Odelay,” Beck has alternated working from album to album with the Dust Brothers (still famous for producing the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique) and Nigel Godrich (who has been behind the boards with everyone from Radiohead, to Paul McCartney to Pavement.)  Adding Danger Mouse to the mix makes things a little more interesting, especially when you consider that Danger Mouse is experiencing massive fame of his own as one half of Gnarls Barkley.  If “Modern Guilt” sometimes has a Gnarls-esque feel, it is to be expected.  Make no mistake, though, this is a Beck record throughout. 

The album opens with “Orphans,” a song which at its core possesses many of Beck’s folk-blues trademarks with some trippy effects placed on top. It all makes for an interesting listening experience.  A feedback patch there, a backwards beat here and an ominous undercurrent beneath an otherwise sunny soundscape.  This is about as far away as “Loser” as you can get.  Take away the technology and just leave Beck with his acoustic guitar and you have a folk song. 

“Gamma Ray” on the other hand is a go-go dancing slice of garage rock that will have you dancing and bopping about like an insane chimp with a sugar high.  It recalls “The New Pollution” and “Girl,” but at the same time sounds like something brand new.  It the brightest spot on the album.

It doesn’t get any more psychedelic than “Chemtrails.”  This song is a slow and woozy three-note meditation during its verses, then it picks up with a pounding drum line and authoritative bass-line that nearly sounds like it belongs on a Stereolab song.  All throughout this song, Beck sings in a soft, low-grade falsetto.  The whole thing climaxes with a false ending which fades into a righteous acid-rock-esque guitar solo. 

Next up is the briskly walking title track. With the exception of some more modern elements, this too could’ve been on a sixties-era record.  “I feel uptight when I walk in the city. I feel so cold when I’m at home” Beck sings before going into a chorus which includes the line “Modern Guilt, I’m under lock and key.”   Ever since “Sea Change,” there’s been a dark sadness beneath Beck’s music.  This is a good example.

“Youthless” has a groove which simultaneously recalls both “We Dance Alone” from “The Information” and “Black Tambourine” from “Guero.”  The computerized-sounding, glitchy keyboard lines add a sense of tension, thus making the track even more alluring.

“Walls” has an Asian feel yet simultaneously is still strikingly psychedelic.  The beat crashes around and the high voices/keyboard sounds in back of the chorus add some effective elements. 

“Replica” is virtually drum-and-bass.  The beat is busy, the guitar line pops in and out and it’s wonderfully dizzying.  It sounds like something Radiohead would have put on “Kid A.”  In fact, over the years, Radiohead and Beck have been neck and neck as the two most innovative forces in modern music. 

“Soul of a Man” is a sharp bit of authoritative blues, with typically cryptic lines like, “Call a doctor / Call a ghost / Put a fire into your bones.”  It doesn’t get any better or any tougher sounding than this.  At 2:35, the song could use another minute because it’s over way too quickly. 

“Profanity Prayers” brings back the previously mentioned dark undercurrent and it also rocks substantially.  Layers of guitar, combined with a moving bass line and frantic drum section make for one of the album’s true standouts.  When everything stops for a momentarily subdued acoustic guitar solo, you can feel your heart pound.  When the beat comes back in, it all fits together perfectly.   

“Volcano” closes the album.  It’s essentially another acoustic guitar number with a slow hip-hop groove.  Beck harmonizes with himself softly during the chorus as he does throughout the album.  No doubt, groups like the Beach Boys and the Zombies have influenced such vocal work.  This too, is a standout, especially when the string section enters. 

Overall, “Modern Guilt” continues Beck’s line of important records.  It’s yet another great, classic listen.  Its complexities may not be apparent immediately, but they are worth your time.  This is definitely an album I will be listening to for the rest of the year!

Down the line, Beck will be looked back upon as a genius. It is my hope that younger generations will eventually discover the greatness of his records. Forty years from now, we will still be listening to these albums.   

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