Thursday, July 10, 2008
Looks Like the Grammys Have Their Hip Album Nominee, If They Decide He's Old Enough
Though never driven by lyricism as much as his reputation might suggest, with lines such as "move through the room like ambulance drivers", Beck could be accused of what we might call first-draft stream of imagery. His closest peers are probably in the Hip Hop game, where meter and rhythm rule and wordplay means exactly that. He's been doing it for 14 years now, most of my existence and a substantial chunk of his adult life. If it can't break, why fix it?
So why does his new album MODERN GUILT hit me so hard? Is it because, even more than usual, I can't quite be sure of what he's saying? Or is it because for the first time I'm certain he can't be sure of it either? I've been writing Beck off for a long time, pretty much since 'Where It's At' climbed to an astounding height of popularity in a late 90s America too serene to realize how weird the thing was. Occasionally I'd check in like a prison guard looking through the slot on the door, happy to find him reading by himself, or dancing on Letterman with Borat.
With the driving 'Sexxx Laws' he seemed to be gunning for the title of our Minister of Irony, but then he seemed to shy away from that with SEA CHANGE, converted to something spare and stale like Damascus in reverse. Events like the death of Jeremy Blake reminded us of how quietly present Beck still was in our pop culture elite, one of the brightest stars not to cast his own orbit.
Is he feeling guilty about this? Perhaps, or how else to explain his teaming up with Danger Mouse, except that is seems like such a natural fit. With backing exhalations and moans that would have been at home on Man Man's first two LP's and Super Mario keyboard jaunts I would have loved to have heard Elliot Smith lay real wristcutters over, this is Beck at his most relaxed and amusing. It's not like reverb and distortion so much as these songs are being whispered at you.
I could quote lyrics and determine intentions, but it's be more fun to tell you for instance that I dont know what the hell 'Gamma Ray' is, but I do know there's only way to dance to it, and it's over 40 years old. I suppose you could read something deep into the ramblings title track, except this is the man whose had a Devil's Haircut on his mind for quite some time. I'm not lucky enough for 'Soul of a Man' to be about DMX's short-lived and hilarious BET reality series, so I'm just going to say Beck's too smart for that title to not be ironic.
'Profanity Prayers', on the other hand, is as strong as any song I've heard this year, even if you could be forgiven for finding the production more Gnarls rejected refuse than anything else Danger does on here. But even with Beck's absolute non-chalance, it's absolutely propulsive.
Mr. Hansen is reaching the age where to ensure his fashionability he must acknowledge his irrelevance. Still, unlike some of the mid-life crissys of his generation, Beck yields nothing. Maybe he just doesn't know. Or maybe unlike Rivers Cuomo, he doesn't have to worry about losing his hair. Even so, like Malkmus before him, he'd rather just riff. The great ones know that as we age there are some thoughts best left to ourselves. He has the rest of his life to turn 40.
P.S.: the damn thing is only 33 minutes, making it suitable for any occasion.