armchair cultural observation since 1995

Review: Beck’s Modern Guilt

Beck – Modern Guilt
Dan MacIntosh
    

Beck albums, like Odelay, set the imaginary artistic expectation bar extremely high. This man/boy is capable of anything, we were (and are) led to believe. How many alternative artists can move from country, to blues, to hip-hop so seamlessly? That’s one short list, indeed.Modern Guilt was produced by Danger Mouse, a man who helped transform Gnarls Barkley into one of today’s hippest soul acts. And while Beck has certainly flirted with soul in the past, most notably on 1999’s Midnite Vultures, this latest set is by no means a return to that R&B form. Rather, the subdued nature of these songs feels closer to the equally quieter examples comprising Sea Change, except Beck is looking outside at the world around him, instead of inside his own troubled heart. On “Chemtrails” he sadly observes: “So many people/They’ve already drowned/You and me watching a sea full of people/Try not to drown.” This same tragic sympathy comes to the fore with “Volcano,” the CD’s closer. On it Beck somberly recalls a femme fatale when he sings, “And I heard of that Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano/Was she trying to make it back/Back into the womb of the world.” In one case, death is successfully sucking down its victims via the sea; in the latter instance, death is viewed as being a skewed new beginning.

To these ears, Danger Mouse hasn’t done anything for Beck that the artist cannot already do for himself. There are very few moments of aural bliss or sonic breakthrough. There also isn’t a whole lot of true rock & roll. One song, which has an old blues song’s name, “Soul of a Man,” features rock guitar shards shooting through it. And while the beats vary delightfully from track to track, none of this work is what you’d term dance music. Wobbly folk music is a far better name for it.

It’s also not entirely clear why Beck calls this latest CD Modern Guilt. Perhaps his guilt is expressed via watching all the people drown in “Chemtrails,” where he is unable to step in and save them from their desperate fate. And does he feel guilty over those who mistake a lava burning demise for reentry into mother’s womb, which is suggested by “Volcano”? “I feel uptight when I walk in the city/I feel so cold when I’m at home,” he admits during the disc’s title track. It’s as though he’s commenting on our post-modern culture’s revised approach to emotions. We’ve taken God out of the equation, so we feel what God intends us to feel – guilt for our sins – yet we’ve collectively decided not to attribute such emotions to God. Or maybe that’s an interpretive reach. I don’t know.

Modern Guilt is not any giant step for mankind, artistically speaking. But no matter where he points his shoes, Beck is always giant steps ahead of the pack. Ultimately, it’s Beck’s beating heart, not beats-per-minute, that makes his latest work an overwhelmingly un-guilty pleasure.

 

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