Once upon a time, every passing season brought another guitar-slinger with aspirations of being knighted the New Dylan, but it’s hard to recall one able to fill the role as well as this smart-alecky bicoastal expectation-tweaker. Like Dylan, Beck (Hansen) has reinvented his personal history countless times — frequently claiming to be a lower-middle-class yutz from Kansas City, since his third-generation bohemian background (mom ran LA’s legendary Masque club in the ’70s, grandpa was a pioneer in the Fluxus art movement a generation before) didn’t have the right cachet. An initial fling at folk — or anti-folk, if you want to nitpick — in the Big Apple didn’t pan out, although he did manage to sneak onto a few bills topped by acoustic-punk potentates like Kirk Kelly and Roger Manning. Having lost the battle on the eastern front, Beck took the struggle to the thriving boho community of Los Angeles’ Silverlake district, discarded his surname and commenced to radicalizing his approach.
When next heard from, Beck was spouting a stripe of stream-of-consciousness slacker poetry not all that different from his all-acoustic days, but he’d augmented the folk instrumentation with beatbox, tape loops and all manner of gadgetry. An embryonic single, “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack,” drew some appreciative smirks from fellow enemies of, er, The Man, but received little attention east of LA’s city limits; ditto the homebrew cassette. Beck remedied that with his next release. The Delta-rap “Loser” looked set to follow its predecessor into obscurity — the single’s thousand-copy pressing didn’t immediately leap from record store shelves — until a few sympathetic radio types began teasing locals with the annoying/insistent/infectious anti-anthem often enough to put the phrase “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me” on the lips of every beaten-generation devotee within earshot. Although the lo-fi smirk-hop ditty was actually recorded nearly two years before its release, “Loser” became a national phenomenon, climbing the charts and helping expose the rest of Beck’s markedly less-populist savantry to the masses.
As he hooked his future to the corporate ogre, Beck released a handful of albums that betray his inability to differentiate between the ridiculous and the sublime. The 10-inch A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight is less than riveting, thanks in no small part to its lower-than-low fidelity and a surfeit of sardonic sidestepping on the part of Beck himself, but One Foot in the Grave is most assuredly a revelation. Recorded before his commercial breakthrough, the largely acoustic album replicates the feel of a vintage Folkways release, to the point that you can hear the vibration of virtually every guitar string on a song like the Appalachian-styled call to arms “He’s a Mighty Good Leader.” On several songs (notably “I Get Lonesome”), Beck is joined by Calvin Johnson (K Records/Beat Happening), whose bass vocals provide a campfire-suitable counterpoint. The refreshingly simple approach allows plenty of room for Beck’s determinedly rudimentary guitar picking to resonate-and forces his writing into newly emotional territory. Even the songs that threaten to collapse under insistent heaps of non sequitur (like “Sleeping Bag”) end up leaving more than a punch line as a legacy. Stereopathetic Soulmanure falls almost exclusively into the former category. Comprised of two dozen studio experiments dating from 1988 to 1993, the album is, for all its jabbing at frat-boy culture, little more than a soundtrack to nickel-beer night at an art- school Animal House — as should be evident from tracks like “Satan Gave Me a Taco” and “Rollins Power Sauce” (okay, the latter is worth a chuckle or two). Dominated by distorted, tenaciously tuneless trifles like “Pink Noise (Rock Me Amadeus)” and “Thunder Peel” — both of which sound like the product of too much Zappa combined with too much helium inhalation — Stereopathetic Soulmanure mistakes idiocy for idiosyncrasy.
Although a few catchy ditties are strewn across the surface of Mellow Gold, the bulk of Beck’s first major-label album is given over to aggressively ironic bricolâge that allows the artiste to empty his sonic bag of tricks (and assert his affinity for a particular four-letter word that crops up in more than half the disc’s songs and two of its titles). But even weighed down with all the self-consciously post-modern baggage, Mellow Gold makes a case for Beck as auteur-despite-himself. Delve beneath the stoner patter of “Nitemare Hippy Girl” and “Pay No Mind (Snoozer),” and you’ll find a writer with an intuitive ability to lance the boils on the face of pop culture, even when that means turning the dagger inward: the latter song’s anti-materialist stance plants the suggestion that listeners “give the finger to the rock’n’roll singer as he’s dancing upon your paycheck.” Not all of Beck’s detours lead to the promised land — “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997” is a flat faux-Bukowski rummy tale and “Soul Suckin Jerk” merely reprises the shtick introduced on “Loser” — but by the time Mellow Gold winds down, Highway 61 seems to be on the horizon.
The Beercan EP surrounds one of Mellow Gold‘s lesser tracks with a handful of ineffectual studio improvisations — subsequent, audience-bewildering live shows indicate that free-form beat-noise may be at the crux of his releases for some time to come. No doubt his farm-boy alter-ego sees the digressions as a way of burning off the crops for a more bountiful harvest in the future.
Although still mottled with a few artistic weeds, Odelay is a copious return. In collaboration with the Dust Brothers, Beck repositions the bluesy hip-hop shtick of “Loser” for the preferential treatment of an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink attack that complements his curious poesy with layers of samples, distortion and mid-song freak-outs. Paul’s Boutique (another Dust-directed endeavor) is a possible musical peer, but Beck’s flat vocals and affection for the occasional guitar-derived groove make Odelay sui generis. “Devils Haircut” is big-beat bombast at its finest and carries the logic of sampling one step further by pinching Them’s cover of James Brown’s 1964 hit “Out of Sight.” “Lord Only Knows” takes a fuzzy trip through the countryside and detours into a crazy beat-box/noodly guitar break that works because of its sheer disorienting ability. “The New Pollution” and “Sissyneck” are fleet-footed rockers that push enthusiastic rhythms into the red and beyond. Most indicative of the album’s pleasures is “Where It’s At,” a funky ode to rump shakin’ so stuffed full of tuneful tidbits — reserved string-picking, a Mantronix sample, sweet sax, hand claps, “two turntables and a microphone” — that it couldn’t help but become both a huge party hit and a rapturous DJ-culture anthem. But Odelay is not built on the beat alone: the chiming, psychedelic prettiness of “Jack-ass” and the discordant punk-rap sound collage of “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” add immeasurably to its personality. Other backward-thinking tracks — the post-punk clatter of “Minus” and the cheerless folk drudgery of the finale, “Ramshackle” — are not so lucky, perhaps because they are the only ones not involving the Dust Bros., but such gaffes don’t deter Beck’s inarguable originality or the album’s overall effulgence.
The Australian tour edition of Sissyneck groups the title track with “Burro” (“Jack-ass” en español), a remix of “Devils Haircut” titled “Dark and Lovely,” the previously unreleased “Brother” and a cover of bluesman Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman.”
After lucratively tapping his keg-like wellspring of modern contrivances, Beck exorcised his acoustic demons further with Mutations. Although intended as another obscure, off-kilter indie release — a proposition made impossible by his Grammy-nominated, MTV-promoted success — the low-key album of leftovers reluctantly became Odelay‘s “unofficial” follow-up. Devoid of sampling, hip-hop beats or the scatological humor that made him King Freeloader for a day, the album reveals Beck as a real musician with real songs backed by a real band. It may contain little flash and even less pretense, but it is also his most consistent collection thus far. Co-produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Air), the 12 songs (counting the hidden “Diamond Bullocks”) bring Mr. Hansen’s tongue-in-cheek twaddle to a more mature level without sacrificing its inventive play. “Lazy Flies” may allude to Dylan, but only if he was hip to Syd Barrett; “Bottle of Blues,” despite its galloping beat, is more Mazzy Star than Muddy Waters. Clockwork Beatlisms drive the solemn waltzes “We Live Again” and “Dead Melodies,” and the quaint piano/upright bass accompaniment in “O Maria” and “Sing It Again” obscures the Tom Waits-like tension bubbling beneath. Beck broadens his applied influences with an unlikely single, the bossa nova-based “Tropicalia,” a tribute to Brazilian music of the late ’60s. (The album title is a reference to Os Mutantes, a revered Tropicalismo combo.) In the string-laden “Nobody’s Fault but My Own” he sings, “Some love holds, some gets used” without a single wink or nudge; in “Static” he asserts, “And it’s a perfect day to lock yourself inside” with all the believability in the world. “Unofficial” or otherwise, Mutations made Beck even more unwieldy and uncompromised than before.
“I just wanna watch you dance,” he announces in “Mixed Bizness,” just one of many apogees found on the disco-rific Midnite Vultures. Retaining the crew from Mutations — bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., guitarist Smokey Hormel and drummer Joey Waronker — but producing most of it himself, Beck creates a pulsating mix that makes it easy to boogie. In place of the folky sidesteps and foul-mouthed punk outbursts of yore, he brings funk beats, blaring horns and a Princely falsetto. It’s dance music, but not always by the book. The swingin’ “Sexx Laws” ends with complementary banjo, “Nicotine & Gravy” sparkles with synth flourishes and a string section, and “Pressure Zone” explores glam ’74 as well as Studio 54. Elsewhere, “Get Real Paid” runs on new-wavey clicks ‘n’ whirrs and airy vocals analogous to the Tom Tom Club; the leisurely “Beautiful Way” utilizes harmonica and pedal steel (plus backing by folktronica dame Beth Orton) but still comes off pure pop. Beck’s lyrical savoir faire is in top form, especially on the Dust Brothers-produced “Hollywood Freaks,” where he namedrops Norman Schwartzkopf, Mercedes, Old Navy, No Doz and a little something called “automatic bzooty.” The album ends on a particularly high note (and not just Beck’s glass-shattering vocal range) with the extra soulful “Debra.” Solid, man, solid!
The Japanese-only Stray Blues compiles seven warts-and-all B-sides (including an excellent cover of “Halo of Gold” which also appeared on More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album) and “Feather in Your Cap” from the Suburbia soundtrack.
Scarred by the dissolution of a long love affair, Beck retaliated with Sea Change, his first unremittingly serious rock album. Extolled by some as a masterpiece, derided by others as a boring sell-out, the album is actually neither, but it is something his previous work never was: good background music. With Godrich back on board, the sincerity only hinted at on Mutations drips from every note and tortured lyric, but only half the songs benefit from the sorrow. With tender acoustic strumming and lucid, melodic vocals, “The Golden Age,” “Lost Cause” and “It’s All in Your Mind” are the most beautiful things Beck has ever recorded. He stretches his musical influences with “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” which strikes a surprisingly positive Gordon Lightfoot pose, and “Already Dead,” which echoes Pink Floyd’s subdued side and the early folk days of Bowie. The feedback and drum rolls that end “Sunday Sun” thankfully interrupt the steadfast solemnity, and some bluesy picking helps raise “Side of the Road” out of the doldrums. The rest, however, is dreary! Majestic string arrangements by David Campbell (Beck’s father) dominate “Paper Tiger, “Lonesome Tears” and “Round the Bend,” but ultimately suffocate the proceedings. “End of the Day” and “Little One” are pretty but have little resonance. It’s a commendable risk for the once sardonic singer to deliver such an unswervingly solemn testament, and it fucked with critics who fixated on his studio trickery and well-kept ennui, but there is too little variation on Sea Change to keep it afloat.
For his next release, the newly crowned “serious artist” unpredictably took his eyes off the horizon to focus on worthy bits from his past. With the Dust Brothers again laying down beats as thick as Henry Rollins’ neck, and Beck locating a comfortable home between the glib and impulsive sides of his creativity, Guero could have just been Odelay Dos, but is ultimately an album that celebrates all things Beck. The plodding goth-blues of “Farewell Ride” and “Emergency Exit” slips effortlessly next to the Sea Change-like temperance of “Broken Drum.” The bossa nova nuance in “Missing” fits smoothly with the robot vocals and street smarts of “Hell Yes.” So much of this feels familiar, but Beck does continue to stretch his artistic tentacles. The hard-rock riffage and off-handed wordplay of “E-Pro” show what a cool hybrid rap-metal can be, and the Casio charm of “Girl” is pure pleasure. Jack White lends a heavy bass-line to the post-modern chain-gang gospel of “Go It Alone,” and “Rental Car” revs up and takes a groovy ride through fuzzed-out chamber-punk. Beck’s lyrical content continues to mature, but he can still lay down appetizing lines like “Talking trash to the garbage around you” and “I’m cleanin’ the floor / My beat is correct.” Guero is a finely crafted product from an artist with a clear vision of what modern rock should sound like. But despite a diligent attempt to have fun — not one, but two songs revolve around a “nah nah nah” refrain — focus keeps him from ever truly loosening up. It hardly marks an album down to decry its overall faultlessness, but a just-for-kicks trifle like “Debra” or a kick in the head like “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” would have no place on an album this self-assured. And that’s a shame.
Guerolito features Beck-selected remixers like Ad Rock, Boards of Canada and Air tinkering with every song from Guero.