Rich and varied though his career has been, of late the element of surprise has deserted Beck Hansen. At 37, he’s coasting comfortably into middle age, his place in the US alt.rock aristocracy assured. With each of his last three albums, however, he has drifted further from relevance and inched towards mediocrity. Admittedly, Beck on a bad day would still run rings around most of the competition, but given the listless nature of Guero and The Information, you get the feeling he’s run out of challenges – or ideas.
And at the same time, if you keep giving your audience the same record, they’re going to get bored, too. The recent deluxe edition of 1996’s slacker milestone Odelay, when he seemed genuinely capable of anything, reminded listeners of his untamed brilliance, but also drew attention to the ground he failed to cover more than a decade later. So, a new way of doing things – that could be the main reason for rushing out Modern Guilt, his hugely likeable 10th studio album on which he whips through 10 songs in 34 minutes.
Released over here by XL after his deal with Interscope expired, Beck is back on an independent label for the first time since 1993, and you suspect he relishes this freedom. That said, during his tenure on a major, it’s hard to imagine his artistic vision was ever compromised.
Beck finished Modern Guilt midway through May after an intensive recording period working with Brian Burton, the hotshot producer best known as Danger Mouse and as the taller, slimmer half of Gnarls Barkley.
“It was like trying to fit two years of songwriting into two-and-a-half months,” Beck has said. “I know I did at least 10 weeks with no days off, until four or five in the morning every night.” This workrate was too much even for Burton, one of the busiest men in showbusiness, who would often fade first and leave Beck to toil until the early hours, then hear the results the next day.
This spring, new album releases by Gnarls Barkley, indie ensemble The Shortwave Set, blues rockers The Black Keys and trip hop diva Martina Topley-Bird have all been produced by Burton. While each has benefitted in some way from his prevailing obsession with late-’60s British psychedelic pop, Burton’s dalliance with Beck is by far the most fruitful.
In spite of the album’s scuffed, fuzzy sheen, Beck’s songwriting is sharp and resourceful, his melodies sweet and economical – the title track canters to its sunny conclusion with lots of “la-la-la”s and strumming. If Nigel Godrich over-egged The Information, here, Burton’s back-to-basics approach has brought out the best in Beck: Modern Guilt mixes the slapdash lo-fi folk of 1994’s One Foot In The Grave with Midnite Vultures’ trippy funk. It may sound knocked-off, hurried even, but to get a record sounding as effortless as this, the pair packed hours of invention into songs like the sugary psych-out of “Profanity Prayers” or “Soul Of A Man”’s ripe Queens Of The Stone Age grind.
There has always been a shade of Austin Powers to Beck’s more upbeat efforts – one thinks of “Pay No Mind” and its pastiche video – and on frisky rug-cutter “Gamma Ray” Beck sings of “these ice caps melting down” and the “transistor sound” over Carnaby Street chug and twang, his voice phasing across the track. “Chemtrails” – wait, is he concerned about the environment? – blends plaintive sighing and refrains about “too many people” with the kind of lolloping funk, tumbling drums and driving guitars that Ride mastered on Nowhere.
Cat Power [aka Chan Marshall] features on two tracks, opener “Orphans” and the fiddle-laced folk of “Walls”, but her contribution is barely discernible. A good deal of Beck’s boho street jive lyrics are indecipherable, too, but on adventurous numbers such as “Replica”, on which drums flail against a descending piano figure, it’s best to let his dulcet murmur guide you across the track.
Affecting closer “Volcano” evokes the quicksilver melancholy of Elliott Smith. “I’ve been drifting on this wave so long, I don’t know if it’s already crashed on the shore”, Beck croaks before the song unfurls into one of the prettiest pieces he’s produced in years.
So Beck is finally fun again, and you suspect the person most surprised by how well Modern Guilt turned out is the guy who made it.