Don’t let the throwaway album art fool you. Beck put a lot of thought and work into his new album, Modern Guilt.
With a stripped down sound co-produced with Danger Mouse (how does he find the time?) and apocalyptic lyrics reflecting our uncertain times, Modern Guilt is Beck’s best work in years and perhaps his most cohesive album to date.
But as the album’s “anti-cover” (two people’s feet) suggests, to really understand this album, it’s more revealing to examine what Beck chooses to leave out.
For starters, Modern Guilt is the first beat-driven album on which Beck forgoes rapping. Like Dylan, who alienated many by “going electric” on Highway 61 Revisited, Beck decides it’s time to leave behind those fans who still request “Beercan” at concerts. This is a welcome shift. Though he broke barriers years ago as an unlikely MC, attempts to rekindle his inner Chuck D. on recent albums (Guero and The Information) felt forced. Hearing him attack the sung verses of “Gamma Ray” with the same lucid drawl he applied to his early raps is refreshing.
This album also abandons the use of borrowed samples (with the exception of one obscure lift from a late ‘60s production music catalog on “Walls“). Thus listeners are reminded of Beck’s raw instrumental talent (he plays the marimba and flute (!)) while Danger Mouse enters Beatles-esque territory (see “Orphans”) without the pesky copyright litigation that followed his Grey Album.
Modern Guilt is also startlingly bereft of humor. Irony? Of course (“I stand beside myself so I’m not alone”). Upbeat tempos? In spades (“Gamma Ray” and “Youthless”). But anyone looking to step into Beck’s Hyundai and get crazy with the cheese whiz is going to leave the party disappointed. “I’ve been drinking all these tears so long, all I have left is the taste of salt in my mouth,” he sings, reminding us he’s not in a joking mood.
The final thing left off this album is, well…finality. Almost every song ends abruptly, including the last track, “Volcano,” which even more shockingly doesn’t receive an encore of bonus noise (a Beck tradition dating back to his earliest masterwork, Stereopathetic Soulmanure).
It is this sense of deliberate absence that makes Modern Guilt so deliciously mysterious.
Is the lack of humor a reflection of a country at war or the subconscious confessions of Beck’s tortured soul? Are the abrupt song endings a simple musical choice or an apocalyptic reminder that “we’re just orphans in a tidal wave’s wake?” Is the bizarrely spare album artwork a hint for listeners to focus on the lyrics or an eleventh-hour middle finger to Interscope (this album is his last under contract with the industry giant)?
The only thing I know for sure is this: It’s nice to have a Beck album worth listening to repeatedly while decoding.
SOUNDS LIKE BECK:
Here are three artists I found on OurStage
who display Beck-esque qualities in different ways. In the comment section below, tell me which artist on OurStage reminds you the most of Beck and why. Whoever makes the most compelling case over the next week will get a free copy of Modern Guilt!
1. “Celebrate” by Kings & Queens
Vintage sounding psychedelic rock echoes the feel of Beck’s album, Modern Guilt.
2. “Hipster” by Vancans
Quirky lyrics, harmonicas, and a slow driving beat encompass Beck’s earlier work, circa Odelay.
3. “September” by Sum Majere
A vintage beat that might cause Danger Mouse to look over his shoulder. Sum even breaks out a harmonica at the end. Beck would be proud.
-written by Quinn Strassel