Beck: “Modern Guilt”

Contrary to what a song like “Loser” might suggest, Beck tends to be a pretty thoughtful, deliberate artist, to the point that you can generally tell a lot about his albums just by their covers. The cheerfully bizarre image on the front of Odelay, for example, reflected that album’s absurdist humor, and set the tone for the postmodern prankster persona that Beck cultivated in the songs. Meanwhile, the garish colors of Midnight Vultures hinted at the neon-colored funk that lay within the music; the simple, clean cover of Sea Change confirms it as Beck’s most straightforward and direct recording; the artwork on Guero, like the music itself, suggests a throwback to Odelay, while the do-it-yourself packaging of The Information points to some of the album’s themes of identity in an information age. So, upon first glance, new album Modern Guilt–with its casual, haphazard cover image of two men’s legs–might seem like it’s going to be tossed-off and frivolous, but of course, nothing Beck does is ever tossed-off or frivolous. Rather, the cover is a deliberate reconstruction of the tossed off album covers that were common in the 60s and 70s-a very carefully-crafted pretense of nonchalance, as it were-that reveals much about both Beck and artist and about Modern Guilt in particular.

For one thing, it’s a reminder that Beck considers everything he does very seriously, which includes the people he collaborates with– in this case, current it-producer Danger Mouse. Fresh off of projects with Gnarls Barkley and Black Keys, Mouse is a natural fit for Beck, not because he helps the artist move in some new direction so much as he helps Beck tap into a dimension of his music– the dark, sinister undercurrents– that have always been just below the surface. Certainly Modern Guilt is a creepy, paranoid album, capturing the same sort of spooky vibes as Danger Mouses’s work with Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad and the Queen. It’s a hushed, twilit feel that suggests the imminent setting of the sun–a good fit for Beck’s songs, which mourn the steady decline of our culture, ominously but not hopelessly.

The album art also suggests a throwback to the 1960s, which is also true of the album, albeit not in the ways one might think. There are some stray elements here–the surf guitar in “Gamma Ray,” the handclaps in “Orphans”– that sound like they could’ve fit into the patchwork of sounds on Odelay or Guero, but Danger Mouse keeps the whole thing wrapped in a kind of narcotic haze, a sinister atmospheric that imbues every song with a sense of dread. It’s not unlike The Information in this regard– there’s a wide variety of sounds assimilated into Beck’s style, but they all seem very carefully chosen to create a very specific mood, not random or pieced-together like they were on Odelay, nor deliberately classicist like on Guero. These ten tracks are very much of a piece, as much the result of Danger Mouse’s spooky production as Beck’s cohesive songwriting.

And that’s another thing that the modest album artwork suggests– the record’s leanness. At just ten songs and barely half an hour of music, this is by far the most direct, concise statement Beck has ever made, which is both a relief after the sprawl of The Information and a bit of a letdown, as it prevents the album from feeling as substantial as some of Beck’s other works, even if it’s just as effective in creating a mood and communicating a specific set of emotions.

Indeed, the album is at once one of Beck’s most artful recordings as well as his most minor. Certainly he and Danger Mouse have created a powerful, memorable sound that is all the more affecting for its short duration, but it must also be said that the unrelentingly sinister feel of the album keeps it from being as much fun to listen to as his last couple of albums; even when Chan Marhsall shows up to sing on “Orphans,” or when Beck pens a particularly catchy song like “Gamma Ray” or “Walls,” it’s all masked by the druggy feel that permeates the whole record. It’s also one of Beck’s least meaty albums, focused more on creating and maintaining a certain feeling than on exploring its themes with much depth; the lyrics, then, create a series of images, images constructed out of references to suicide and war, to violence and terrorism, and in general to feelings of paranoia in a modern world, but they never go much beyond those images, which keeps the album direct but also makes it seem a bit slight.

But maybe that’s what Beck was aiming for. His cover art is clearly meant to evoke a particular time and place, and so, too, do these songs; taken as a whole, the album is an unsettlingly accurate soundtrack to life in the modern world. And if it doesn’t quite stand up as one of Beck’s more enjoyable or meaningful albums, it must also be said that it’s a strong testament to his focus as a writer and as a recordmaker, two aspects of his talent that often get short shrift.

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