Album Reviews

Beck – Modern Guilt

(XL) UK release date: 7 July 2008


Musical chameleon and rock poet laureate Beck Hansen is back with a new album. But if you’re expecting a logical follow-up to his single Timebomb from last year, prepare to be surprised.

In a move that should have been expected from his track record, Beck takes Modern Guilt in a new direction. The results can hardly be pinned down by any one genre name (“psychelectronica” just doesn’t have the right ring to it…), but if you’re looking for an encapsulating term, it might be something like “Dangeresque.” Yes, Brian Burton’s Danger Mouse mark is all over this album, for better or worse, from beginning to end.

Orphans passes by rather fitfully (Cat Power‘s guest vocals just get buried in the mix), but by the time Gamma Ray kicks in with its poppy surf beat you’ll swear that someone slipped a Gnarls Barkley track in the mix by mistake. Gamma Ray sounds like something that Cee-Lo decided to pass over – a track that Danger wanted to salvage. With a recycled beat, repetitive guitar line, and weird vocal swoons, the song sounds like something that should have been left in the production bin (along with half of Gnarls Barkley‘s last album, The Odd Couple).

The cracks in Danger Mouse‘s super-producer facade are starting to show, but Beck nevertheless manages to bring out a few interesting moments from an overall lackluster production. Chemtrails is one of those moments.

Sounding like an extremely spaced-out Flaming Lips song, Chemtrails boasts phantasmagoric vocals that dominate a scene full of huge, intense drums, sparse piano, floating chords, and a chugging guitar. A description like “haunting” doesn’t capture the topsy-turvy energy of the track – set within a semi-religiously themed album involving cryptic commentary on ecology (Gamma Ray), isolation in society (Modern Guilt), and pop theology (Soul Of A Man), the five-minute spiritual search on Chemtrails becomes an aural representation of life. Cacophonous moments interrupt quiet moments of introspection and the whole thing ends in the flurry of a guitar solo.

Beck’s lyrics have been hailed as rock poetry, taking the Dylan torch of obscure but powerful imagery. Much of Modern Guilt focuses on introspection – walking the streets of the city, staring down empty halls, walls falling down on top of you. But Beck’s lyrical power lies between these hackneyed scenes, bursting through like rays of sunlight.

“Shake your seasick legs around.” Walk along with a “rattlesnake step in your rhythm.” These simple images bring forceful jabs to mundane topics.

Modern Guilt doesn’t have much staying power, though. Danger emphasises repetition and sometimes it’s an elegant, sparse approach to pop music; but retro tracks and busy, schizophrenic beats (Replica) try the patience, especially when they end up sounding like Gnarls Barkley rehashes.

It’s hard to deny the fresh, eclectic sounds of Walls or the sheer beauty in the closing sounds of Volcano, but overall, if this is any indication, Danger Mouse’s productions are losing their novelty, and Beck remains at an uneven point in his career. Fortunately, both artists are unusually prolific and have no musical end in sight. Let’s check back in next year to see where they’re at.


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Beck – Song Reader
Beck – Morning Phase
Beck: Song Reader Live @ Barbican
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