Classifying Beck Hansen’s music is kind of like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. One second you think you’ve got him, the next you’re scratching your head wondering how he got away.
The release of his eighth studio album, Modern Guilt, follows tradition by filling popular music’s writhing cracks. From Beck’s early days spent busking bizarre hip-hop-style anti-folk songs like “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” on the streets of Los Angeles, to the brilliant, revolutionary Odelay, to the Game Boy sounds of Guero and The Information, he has proved for over a decade that his natural progression as an artist thrives on highly original genre-blending. Also, it should be noted that “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” is one of my all-time favorite song titles.
So how does Modern Guilt distinguish itself from a very impressive body of work? Beck played a personnel game of cat and mouse, enlisting help on a pair of tracks from soft-voiced piano chanteuse Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall), and hiring on DJ Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton, best known as the brains behind the beats of Gnarls Barkley) as producer. The two bring differing touches to the album and united by Beck, they consummate a unique marriage.
Take, for instance, the unique lead track, “Orphans,” which features Danger Mouse’s characteristic catchy drum beats and organ rhythms, accentuated by a lot of strange ambient noise (piano slides, sweeping synthesizers, and background bells, work reminiscent of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot producer Jim O’Rourke), and Marshall’s mysterious backing vocals. They all produce what sounds like a long-forgotten, desolate carnival ride, featuring lyrics describing what it’s like “fighting a fire with your bare hands.”
Topically, Beck digs far deeper into his psyche than ever before, revealing more serious songwriting as he nears 40. While Odelay and Guero feature comparatively cheeky songs like “Where It’s At,” “Sissyneck,” and “Hell Yes,” Modern Guilt attacks a variety of more meaningful, direct topics. “Chemtrails” considers eco-terrorism, “Orphans” and “Volcano” tackle the fear of uncertainty, and “Soul of a Man” begs the eternal spiritual question, “What makes the soul of a man?” Beck’s ability to blend these themes into hip-hop-style poetry is remarkable.
The album has its singular moments as well. The lead guitar riff on “Soul of a Man” stands out, and the 60’s throwback acid-drop go-go rhythms from “Gamma Ray” is Top 40 material. I had the pleasure of seeing many of the songs on Modern Guilt performed live a few weeks ago in Austin, Texas, and “Chemtrails” shined with epic quality, cementing itself as my favorite song on the album. The painful foreshadowing of the opening vocal harmonies and trippy bass plucks give way to the song’s echoing vocal climax, and the final bell-toll and guitar freak-out proved this to be Beck’s greatest track in years.
Odelay will forever remain one of the few albums (by any artist) to ever receive the tremendous praise that it did, and few works even stand the grounds worthy of challenging it, but that doesn’t mean Modern Guilt isn’t worth consideration as a near second. Beck is 38 now, and this new batch of songs are clear foils, yet very respectful to the music he produced twelve years ago.