Sunday, September 14, 2008


Modern Guilt

Modern Guilt is Beck Hansen’s fourth album of this decade, following his exquisite 2002 breakup album Sea Change, 2005’s scintillating, hook- and groove-packed Guero—my nominee for the quintessential modern-day SoCal album—and the spotty The Information in 2006. Although the most recent LP yielded a pair of grabbers in “I Think I’m in Love” and “Cellphone’s Dead,” even hard-core fans were forced to acknowledge that it just wasn’t “sticky,” like Beck’s best work, which has always hit above the neck and below the waist with equal force.

If The Information failed to stick, the new album is even more resistant to an easy embrace—but the fact that it plays hard to get doesn’t mean it isn’t beguiling in its rhythmic, textural and time-traveling adventurousness. Modern Guilt is Beck’s first collaboration with Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), a restless, iconoclastic sonic architect who somehow managed to sculpt two of the stickiest smashes of the ’00s in the Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” While you’ll find nothing that accessible here, there’s a universe of intriguing detail—though grasping it at any given moment proves to be as tricky as catching a hummingbird with your bare hands.

One way of looking at the album is as a postmillennial, postmodern refraction of ’60s acid rock, in which the sounds have been so radically treated that there’s no longer more than a fleeting hint of discernible instrumentation. The psychedelic flavor extends to the elliptically metaphysical lyrics, buried deep in Danger Mouse’s mixes so that Beck’s vocals are part of the wash rather than central features (this is one album for which the printed lyrics are essential). This record is a sort of Zen riddle in that the harder you try to absorb it, the more it resists. Better to follow the lead of the original acid-rock crowd—get your consciousness into a more receptive space and let it seep in through the pores.

These 10 tracks are sci-fi soundscapes disguised as retro pop songs…or the other way around…or both at the same time. It’s like Bowie’s Major Tom took them into space with him 40 years ago and has just transmitted them back to earth, now barely recognizable artifacts after being warped by the space-time continuum.

From the first line of the opening “Orphans”—“I think I’m stranded but I don’t know where”—punctuated by a mutation of the Phil Spector Wall-of-Sound drum beat, it’s apparent that Beck has something weighing heavily on him, as a Byrds-y guitar and Beach Boys-style oohs shimmer in the distance, like memories of better times. “Gamma Ray” harnesses a vintage go-go beat and surf guitar to a futuristic fable in which icecaps are melting, “the heatwave’s calling your name” and the Chevrolet terraplane is the preferred form of conveyance. The eerie “Chemtrails” sets off teeming post-apocalyptic imagery against symphonic-rock pomp on the order of the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, exploding at midpoint into hallucinatory grandeur a la Revolver’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” complete with a burbling, McCartney-esque bass pattern from Jason Falkner and Ringo-style drum fills from Joey Waronker, as Beck envisions climbing “in a hole in the sky.” “Modern Guilt,” in which he confesses hopelessly, “I don’t know what I’ve done but I feel ashamed,” appropriates and soups up the shuffle beat of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” and the descending bass pattern of the Doors’ “People Are Strange,” before giving way to the punchy “Youthless,” with Larry Corbett’s cello doubling Matt Mahaffey’s bass line while Danger Mouse’s synth bleeps like C3-PO.

This is an elusive, rigorously avant-garde piece of work that seems to exist in constant flux, like an aural kaleidoscope, its rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements seeming to move independently of each other—so much so that when a conventional rock backbeat and overdriven guitar riff finally appear on the next-to-last track “Profanity Prayers,” it’s a relief—even more so when a strummed acoustic and a George Harrison-style slide guitar make a brief appearance near the song’s end.

The closing “Volcano” returns to the panoramic balladry of Sea Change, offering what passes for a coherent summing up of the album’s accumulated unease, as Beck, whose vocal for the first time is placed front and center, muses: “I don’t know if it’s my illusions that keep me alive… I’m tired of evil and all that it feeds, but I don’t know / I’ve been drifting on this wave so long / I don’t know if it’s already crashed on the shore…” In all, he utters the words “I don’t know” seven times, along with an “I can’t tell,” before turning his questioning mind to “the Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano / Was she trying to make it back to the womb of the world?” For him, the volcano beckons only because he wants “to warm my bones on that fire a while,” as the album cycles from capturing the zeitgeist with unsettling vividness to pondering the universal imponderables.

A master of Dylanesque free association, Beck has never been more purposeful or theme-serving in his expression, as if the verbal playfulness of his past writing is no longer enough. On Modern Guilt, he’s getting at the grinding sense of uncertainty that we all carry with us in these freaky times—frequently through the prism of freaky times past—as what we believed to be the most permanent of edifices crumble around us, one after another, along with the protections and reassurances they offered. Modern Guilt is the sound of life being lived as things fall apart.

(This review originally appeared on

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