Album Reviews

Beck – One Foot In The Grave

(XL) UK release date: 1 June 2009

Beck – One Foot In The Grave The prolific Beck Hansen had an extremely productive 1994, even by his own fertile standards: One Foot in The Grave was one of three albums he released that year, the other two being Stereopathic Soulmanure – an odd hotch-potch, to say the least – and the dirgey, snarling Mellow Gold, Odelay’s spiritual predecessor.

This, however, was something else entirely. Recorded on a shoestring budget with K Records honcho, Calvin Johnson, One Foot In The Grave is a lo-fi landmark inspired by delta blues legend Skip James; a folk journey that rattles along gently like a box car full of maudlin yet melodic hobos.

Twanging into earshot with Skip’s own He’s A Mighty Good Leader, the whole affair is uncluttered and honest, offering no apologies for its impressively low grade construction. The result? The sincerest of all Beck’s efforts – Sea Change included.

Sleeping Bag is simplicity itself, a meandering progression committed to a track of bare essentials, all of which is held together by romantic ideals: “Let’s try to make it last / The past is still the past / And tomorrow is just another crazy scam.”

Johnson himself – and his implausibly low register – guest on the stomping, metronomic I Get Lonesome, while Burnt Orange Peels’ joyous grunge marks one of the album’s few plugged in moments. Less is certainly more; the sparing use of overdrive makes it sound even more electrifying here.

Beck’s lyrical obscurity takes a bow over Cyanide Breath Mint’s charmingly beaten up acoustic guitar, before Hollow Log – one of the genuine high points of the Hansen songbook – picks and strums its way into the ether, sounding as timeless as any of the folk originals pinpointed as One Foot In The Grave’s influences.

Indeed, Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods takes such authenticity to its zenith, and could just as easily be a lost Leadbelly recording of many years previous. Asshole, meanwhile – later covered by Tom Petty – captures its downcast era with aplomb, courting sadness in the trademark fashion of the early ’90s alternative scene.

Girl Dreams preludes Sea Change’s heartbreak and self-doubt with greater earnestness than its eventual successor, Beck’s outpourings entirely unencumbered by the whisper-quite folk strum and brushed drum strokes. Painted Eyelids then presents the flipside of the same lyrical coin, all joyful harmonies and quirky optimism. The effect is infectious.

A further 13 tracks accompany the re-issue, most of which were recorded during the LP sessions but culled before the end. Among them are early versions of All In Your Mind, Feather In Your Cap (later accounted for on the Stray Blues collection) and what would have been the title track.

This bonus content will certainly prove appealing to long-time fans, and entertaining enough for the Beck layman to dip into, but remain a sideshow by definition; the aperitif to the album’s folky main course.

One Foot In The Grave remains one of the greatest achievements in the Beck discography. It has aged far better than its siblings from the same year, sounding all the better for its increasingly apparent status as a milestone in lo-fi mythology: the man at his simple, idiosyncratic best.

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