Beck=Modern Guilty Pleasure

Thu Mar 20 2014

Yep, like Castle.

Like most fans of good music, I've been listening to Beck quite a bit leading up to and since the release of Morning Phase, his first album in six years, touted as some kind of successor to his 2002 album Sea Change. That album was inspired by a breakup with a longtime girlfriend; this successor, perhaps by the heartbreak inherent in Scientology?

No, it's actually not about heartbreak. It's not about anything, really; it hints at disconnection and loneliness, maybe, and it has the very tidy "morning"-themed bookends. It's mostly a lot of vague expressions of...well, I'd say the overriding theme is of half-hearted dissatisfaction colored with mild strains of affection. It just sounds like Sea Change--mostly acoustic, boring and augmented by lush string arrangements. I like it better than Sea Change, though, because it's not dragged down by horrible mopey lyrics like "It's only lies that I'm living/It's only tears that I'm crying/It's only you that I'm losing/Guess I'm doing fine". And also, the orchestration on Morning Phase is more sophisticated and sometimes downright gorgeous; ditto for the multitracked vocals. It's all so polished and pretty it could almost pass for Haim.

I enjoyed 2008's Modern Guilt quite a bit, and the previous two Beck albums even more, but the music has been getting progressively less interesting since 2005's Guero. Prior to this year I couldn't tell you the last time I listened to a single song Beck has put out since Midnite Vultures, except those two rogue singles from last year, which I liked.

But why the hell did I like them? I'm starting to realize I've been letting Beck slide for a long time on increasingly unimaginative music and pointless lyrics. I rip on other artists' lyrics all the time, but, um, when has Beck ever written a great lyric?

Never, that's when. I can't deny I love his absurd gobbledygook from the early days, because it was obviously not meant to be taken seriously. But ever since Odelay he's gradually lost his sense of humor, yet somehow the paradigm of Beck=genius, based purely on his ability to cobble stylistic elements together, has lent his more serious work some critical heft that it doesn't earn.

Before we get carried away: Yeah, there is real value in the interaction between his surreal poetry and the genre mishmash that he created with Mellow Gold and Odelay, and those albums absolutely changed music forever. They still stand as unique statements and don't even sound dated. Nor does Midnite Vultures, my favorite (although Mutations comes off a little tepid nowadays). The key to these albums is their irreverence and humor. My favorite Beck songs make me laugh out loud, or at least did when I first heard them. I'd still probably have to claim "Satan Gave Me A Taco" as my favorite Beck song, and the "Loser" EP (particularly "Fume") will always be in regular rotation I imagine. Shit, I'm a regular Beck freak; not trying to hide it! I've got old CD singles (and had a bunch of 45s before they were all stolen), and as far as I know I've got every one of his old demos that has ever surfaced to the public.

I enjoy listening to that stuff, too, but the truth is it's all garbage. I love Stereopathetic Soulmanure, but its value is almost entirely comedic. I certainly don't give bands like Ween and Flaming Lips a pass on their ridiculous early drivel; why Beck? Maybe just because I heard Beck first and he quickly ingratiated himself into my circle of friends. Sometimes I think the main reason I've kept doggedly collecting his shit over the years is that his vocal range is even more limited than mine, so I can easily sing everything he puts out.

No, there's more to it than that. Chiefly, Beck is unmistakably Beck in everything he does. I do tend to prize uniqueness above most other qualities of music, and Mr. Hansen is an original. That's one of my main beefs with Sea Change: For the most part, it sounds like Gordon Lightfoot, with a couple of mild curveballs thrown in (hey, I'll admit I do like "Sunday Sun") for token Beck-ness. And the whole world went WHAT? Beck being sad? He's never done that before, IT MUST BE A CLASSIC.

I don't mean to be contrarian (at the moment), but what in the fuck is so great about any of the songs on that album? If you really want to wallow in self-pity I can recommend a hundred way more depressing, way more original albums. I really think the Beck-is-God myth and the stark difference from his other work is all Sea Change had going for it. Hey, bravo for trying something new, dude, but you're not good at everything, despite what everyone tells you.

That leads me back to considering Morning Phase. It's a sonically rich album, and not as listless and maudlin as its twelve-year-old template, so I don't find it quite as boring. Old man Hansen still managing to make decent music while the rest of the 90s alt-rock titans do little but embarrass themselves album after album (and laugh all the way to the bank) initially sparked some joy in me I suppose. But objectively, it is a complete stylistic retread of an already unoriginal album, and if anything it's got even less lyrical substance. Ultimately I have to agree with a friend's assessment that it's just a slimy slab of Grammy-bait. I guess I've lost faith in Beck's integrity; he could write more imaginative songs in his sleep, but he knows an hour of palatable AOR is guaranteed to be liked by lots of people and difficult to pick apart. As good as Morning Phase might be, I'm pretty sure I'll be finished listening to it for good within the year. I still don't think it sucks as bad as Sea Change, but it has the distinction of making me realize that Beck has always kinda sucked.
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