(Three and a half stars)
There was a time when Beck could do no wrong. His first two major label albums went platinum and double platinum respectively, mostly on the steam of that one song (you know it) and a smart cut-and-paste ethic coupled with an unaffected naÃ¯vetÃ©. He went gold on four of the next five discs and the critics didn’t mind much either when he released Sea Change, his most personal and certainly most decaffeinated opus since Mutations. But despite continuous love from the charts, the two records he put out after did get quite desultory in places. Moreover, at an hour each, both Guero and The Information were too bloated to sustain the patchy writing and it sometimes seemed like the hillbilly from outer space was just going through the motions.
Modern Guilt, pointedly shorter and tighter at 34 minutes and 10 songs, puts an end to all that, showcasing some of Beck’s more consistent material in a while. Recorded and often rewritten and re-recorded over an astounding 10 weeks without break, Modern Guilt is typical of the artist in the way it brazenly mashes together myriad textures. Yet, for the balance it achieves between unconstrained exploration and nailing a very specific vibe (in this case a broad sonic sweep of the Sixties, from brisk British invasion to pop-psychedelia), Beck’s tenth studio effort stands apart, alongside the best of his back catalogue.
Nowhere is the singer-songwriter’s newfound focus more in evidence than on the lead single, ”˜Chemtrails’, where he takes a welcome break from the folk-rap rant to dig into a luxuriously floating melody. The uncharacteristically high, Neil Young-like intonation is supported by sparse piano work reminiscent of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips (who had toured with him after Sea Change) and a hundred cascading drum rolls. A tune both grand and, at four-and-a-half minutes, fairly concise. There are few other singing surprises too, like the soulful vocals on the title track and the chorus of ”˜Volcano’, where Beck sounds uncannily like Elliot Smith. But more than anything else, it’s the meticulous craftiness behind the rhythm sections on Modern Guilt that makes it one of the few true surprises this summer.
This is where I must come to Mr Everywhere, Brian ”˜Danger Mouse’ Burton, because the producer’s Midas touch is the best finishing school Beck could’ve hoped to find for his peculiarities. You get a sense of the same from the moment the drum sample on the opener ”˜Orphans’ (which also features a skilled and unobtrusive seconds contribution from Cat Power’s Chan Marshall) is taken over by a punchy Swinging Sixties beat, uplifting the solemn mood of the first few measures and setting the pace for the rest of the disc. There are a thousand such slices of playfulness stuffed into every track as one moves down the list, from the rattlesnake roll and beep/guitar/piano fills on ”˜Modern Guilt’ to the subtle reggae of ”˜Walls’ and the stuttering pulse (quite like Burton’s own ”˜Open Book’ from The Odd Couple) and endless layering on ”˜Replica.’ Some surprisingly grungy guitar work comes to the forefront before the end with ”˜Soul of a Man’ and ”˜Profanity Prayers’. The haunting noise-rock elements of the latter find a perfect foil in the closing song ”˜Volcano,’ which could just as easily have been at home on Sea Change with its languid pace, lush string arrangements and weary crooning.
Despite imagery peppered with warheads and sinking boats, ice caps and heat waves, there is no grand allusive plan, no real bite to Modern Guilt, just a few nibbles at easily associable catch-phrases. Murky at best, and shaped by the stream-of-consciousness jottings of his more eclectic endeavours, the lyrics pay little heed to title and often even to each other. But that’s Beck, I suppose. While it’s still anyone’s guess what he’s singing about, Modern Guilt is potent enough to be done with you before you are with it and therein lays its draw. It also marks an exciting musical departure for the artist, as if he’s found another band; one that was waiting for him all this time.