2. Gamma Ray
4. Modern Guilt
8. Soul of a Man
9. Profanity Prayers
I feel super hip for having bought the CD before its official release date, but that has little to do with anything else I have to say about Beck’s new album Modern Guilt. For what amounts to be his eighth studio album (because nobody, apparently, is counting Stereopathic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave) Beck Hansen teams up with producer and half of the electronic/soul duo Gnarls Barkley, Danger Mouse. I’ve learned quickly that Beck doesn’t do “follow-up albums” in the traditional sense; for example, nobody saw Sea Change coming in all its orchestral and clinically depressed glory. And the country-western vibe of Mutations still remains something of an anomaly in his catalog. I’ve also learned that he can do nothing wrong. Sure, The Information was half bad, but it gave him an excuse to make music videos, which is, deep down, I think, what he enjoys most about songwriting. Besides, how does someone follow such a solid album like Guero? It’s like expecting salmon to go with the flow, or hoping I’ll take Kanye West seriously. It’s simply unrealistic.
Modern Guilt might not be too much new territory, but Beck gives it all a new look anyway, dousing everything in radioactivity and chemicals. Never being one to shy away from electronic music, he and Danger Mouse are like a match made in heaven, making the album much more danceable than I originally gave it credit for. With a pulse of drums and Beck’s familiar twangy guitar, “Orphans” opens the album where Guero left off with songs like “Scarecrow” or “Earthquake Weather,” except here there’s more atmosphere, more psychadelia, more Cat Power. It quickly found a home on my list of favorite tracks. Following that is “Gamma Ray,” a catchy pop song similar to Guero’s “Girl,” with rolling drum pads and throbbing bass that might make you wonder why Cee-Lo isn’t singing this song.
On “Chemtrails,” Beck turns up the atmospheric rock and gives us some of his falsetto, which we haven’t heard since Midnite Vultures. But don’t expect sex and neon anywhere in this song. This is the track that makes his touring the nation with Band of Horses click for me. This is quite an impressive fusion of rock ballad and the chemical sound he seems to be developing for this record. A soft piano and walking bass start the track before the drums break in, bringing things up a notch. Usually, you might expect Beck to end a song like this by deconstructing every instrument into static and noise for another 45 seconds. Here, he parodies himself by reprising the song with a tag that expresses just how polished and mature this album is as a whole.
The title track and “Youthless,” a current favorite, are bouncy and scream “Beck!”—and kind of sound like Beck’s been sneaking around Khaela “The Blow” Maricich’s apartment in his free time. But this is how Beck operates. There’s usually something vaguely familiar about the music he makes. He takes elements of everything already in circulation and then breaks them up and open like a glow stick. There are some people (remaining well within their rights in musical taste) who might be turned off to an album with so many transparent influences. I, however, am always the kind of person who thinks, “What if Andrew Bird did a record with A Fine Frenzy?” So the teaming on this record is like a pipedream come true for me.
“Walls” stands up as another song that could have easily been mixed in with Gnarls Barkley’s latest effort, and Cat Power returns for another go at the microphone. But beginning with “Replica” and increasing exponentially through the final track, “Volcano,” Beck’s maturity on this record bleeds through any familiarity with Danger Mouse’s other project. “Soul of a Man” is a crunchy, guitar-driven rocker that carries just the right amount of swagger, and “Profanity Prayers” is exactly the kind of rock music that you should grow to expect from Beck. Capping the track-list is “Volcano,” a slow-boiler bringing us back down to a guy and his guitar, but not without a smoldering chemical residue.
I’d venture to say Beck knew what he was getting himself into when he asked Danger Mouse to produce for him and gave him some drum credits. I’d also guess that Beck knows exactly what his music can be compared to for any given album. There is certain level of intentionality to Beck’s work that expresses more than flattering imitation. He reinvents. The result is an inspired collection of ten songs that I can honestly promise will be imprinted on the summer of 2008, permanently, in my mind.