In December, McSweeney's released a long-in-the-pipeline Beck project called Song Reader. It's a boxed set containing beautifully illustrated sheet music for 20 new Beck songs, but no actual music, a handsome $34 coffee-table artifact and a whimsical conceptual-artisanal gesture all in one — a "new Beck album" that is not a new Beck album, because the songs don't become music unless and until you, the listener, can teach yourself to plunk them out on guitar or piano.
As writer Geeta Dayal pointed out in Slate when Song Reader was released, making a "new album" available only as sheet music is kind of a Portlandia joke come to life — the practice of defying iTunes culture by releasing music only on vinyl or cassette taken to its absurd extreme. But it's also in keeping with the way Beck's chosen to operate for the past half-decade or so. He hasn't made an album since 2008's Modern Guilt, a collaboration with the producer Danger Mouse that also marked the fulfillment of his contractual obligation to Geffen Records. Since then, he's managed to stay busy with music, but in a carefully (and maybe deliberately) below-the-radar fashion — producing, contributing to soundtracks and compilations, rapping on Childish Gambino mixtapes, and masterminding weird experiments like the now-dormant Record Club series, in which he and a rotating cast of semi-famous collaborators got together to re-record classic albums in one slap-happy daylong session.
He's said that he may release a new album, or possibly two new albums, by the end of this year. Who knows — maybe he's sitting on a boxed set worth of stuff. I did a short, unfocused interview with him when he produced a Stephen Malkmus record in 2011; when I asked him about new songs, he said he had a few, in various stages of completion. Figuring out how to put them out didn't seem to be at the top of his to-do list: "What does an album mean now?" he asked. "The relevance of the format, the form — does the world need another record?"
Beck's breakthrough single, "Loser," was first released as a vinyl 12-inch single by Bong Load Custom Records on March 8, 1993 — 20 years ago this week. But the song was actually recorded way back in 1991, and it wasn't until 1994 — when a major label signed Beck and reissued the single — that the song became the supposedly epoch-defining fluke hit that it would become. So depending on where you start the clock, "Loser" is either 20 years old or it's twentysomething — which makes this a perfectly imperfect time to examine the evolution of Beck's position in the modern-rock canon.
The Golden Albatross
Like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it's a song whose pop-cultural footprint sort of obscures it as a song; you probably haven't listened to "Loser" on purpose lately and you probably couldn't really hear it if you did.
It wasn't designed to go down in history. "It's like if a friend took a stupid picture of you at a party on their phone," Beck told Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal once, "and the next thing you knew, it was on every billboard." The track was the first one Beck finished the first time he recorded with Bong Load's Rob Schnapf and co-producer Karl Stephenson, who'd done beats for MC Skat Kat and produced at least one lost-classic gangsta-rap song for Rap-A-Lot Records in the '80s; on "Loser," the drums under that slinky-descending-a-staircase slide-guitar loop are from "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," bluesman Johnny Jenkins's cover of a Dr. John song. The Spanglish hook was Beck mocking his own shitty rapping; he'd intended to go back and replace it with something better. (What could he have replaced it with, you wonder? Would we still be having this conversation?) They never fixed it, and when the single became a sleeper hit on alt-rock radio, cultural commentators looking for Generation X to explain itself in song seized on Beck's self-deprecating ad-lib as an act of spokesmanship.
Or that's the conventional wisdom, anyway. It's clear that Beck was smart enough to recognize immediately that the voice-of-a-generation label was both a medal and a noose — that the minute you accept the premise that your work speaks to something bigger than your own life, you're obligated to continue delivering generational bulletins, lest you be accused of turning inward and abandoning everyone who believed in your Importance. (For a guy who's evaded Dylan comparisons1 like bear traps in every interview he's ever given, he'd clearly absorbed a lot of the lessons of Dylan's arc.) There's this narrative in which Beck declines the generational spokesman crown early on, and that decision defines him and foreshadows the aesthetic twists and turns of his later work. To some extent it's a useful fiction, because barring a few very early press clips2 in which someone attempts to pigeonhole him, the only people bringing up the idea of Beck possibly being a Slacker Nation spokesmodel are Gen-Xers prompting Beck to deny it in interviews;3 it's not like Andy Rooney was taking him to task for glamorizing sloth.
Writing about Macklemore's hit anti-baller anthem "Thrift Shop" in the New York Times last month, Jon Caramanica observed that the white Seattle MC's rapping is "merely a tool to advance ideas that are not connected to hip-hop to an audience that doesn't mind receiving them under a veneer of hip-hop cool." In a sense, that approach to rapping and/or hip-hop beats — the Jenkins loop was already a well-thumbed sound by the time Stephenson got to it — starts with Beck and specifically "Loser." The difference is the veneer; "Loser" is formally hip-hop in a way that probably opened doors for more people than anyone since the Beastie Boys, but there's nothing even counterintuitively hip-hop cool about it. Nowhere in its pileup of weird voices and images do we hear anything like the screwed-down African Americanish voice in "Thrift Shop" marveling at what a "cold-ass honky" Macklemore is — just some delusional character insisting "I'm a driver, I'm a winner — things are gonna change, I can feel it." (The speaker is "Loser" video director Steve Hanft, in his film Kill the Moonlight, although Rolling Stone's Michael Azerrad, among others, heard George H.W. Bush — people really, really wanted to hear some kind of a political statement in this song, I guess.)
The First Album, the Second First Album, the Third First Album
Mellow Gold is more lush than you remember, Melvins samples and pointedly tourist-alienating Butthole Surfers noise-workouts and overall junk-shop aesthetic notwithstanding. Fleshed out with bong-rattling bass and psychedelic guitar textures, "Beercan" and "Fuckin' With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)" and "Soul Suckin' Jerk" ("Shake Your Rump" as a sea shanty, kind of) all cohere into pop songs nearly as catchy as "Loser," and with its forays into drone and dolor, the rest of the record is all over a map he'd follow for a decade. He'd already found his great subject: rootlessness.
A clause in Beck's DGC deal gave him the option to continue putting out material on independent labels, which meant there were actually three full-length Beck albums in stores by the end of 1994; the almost-contiguous appearance of Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave both felt, at the time, like attempts on Beck's part to contextualize and dilute the impact of "Loser," although he probably had very little to do with their timing. Stereopathetic Soulmanure, released one week before Mellow Gold by the indie label Flipside, feels like the collection of found objects that it is — it includes both a winsome country lament Johnny Cash would later cover ("Rowboat") and a leafblower solo. Fidelity and quality both vary wildly from song to song, but back then that was sort of the point (of pride); you could probably cull an equally strong compilation from Beck's now-easily-downloadable pre-album cassette demos Golden Feelings and Don't Get Bent Out of Shape, on which Beck's already writing surprisingly focused folk/blues ready-mades, freestyling phraseology he'd return to ("pigeon wing," "gambling wheel") and compiling field recordings of people watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in shitty apartments.
Beck recorded the semi-acoustic One Foot in the Grave in Olympia, Washington, with producer Calvin Johnson in November 1993, just as the post-"Loser" bidding war began to heat up. (You can't really hear it, although "Cyanide Breathmint" feels a little like an ambivalent I-got-signed song, along the lines of Belle & Sebastian's "Seymour Stein.") Johnson was a founding member of Beat Happening and the avatar of a naive, handicraft approach to indie rock whose spirit survives in monetized form every time somebody opens a scarf shop on Etsy. The cynical way to look at Grave is that it's Beck, on the verge of losing his underground cred, pairing up with Johnson in order to take preemptive/positional refuge behind the shield around the K. The record never feels self-conscious, though; it's the closest thing in his catalogue to a full-on folk record, and the log-cabin fidelity suits the songs even if Johnson's Budweiser-frog backing vocals sometimes don't. Source of the wonderful "Asshole," later covered by Tom Petty:
Enter the Mystical Wizard of Rhythm
"Beck's on the verge of mainstream acceptance, and he's not as scary as Trent Reznor or Billy Corgan since he shaved his head."
—Shellye Poster of the AEI Music Network, "which programs background music for retailers," quoted in Entertainment Weekly, 2/14/97
"When I'm upset, I write a song about it. Like when I wrote 'Devil's Haircut,' I was feeling really … really … What's that song about again?"
—Beck's disembodied head, Futurama episode no. 313, "Bendin' in the Wind"
To paraphrase Greil Marcus — who's said the only Beck song he ever got anything out of was the B side "Mexico" — this is the one where the reluctant new Dylan starts proactively trying to be the new Prince instead. Apparently Beck had a more somber Mellow Gold follow-up in the can, then scrapped everything but "Ramshackle" (an ode to his late grandfather, the Fluxus collage artist Al Hansen) to start over with erstwhile Paul's Boutique architects the Dust Brothers on the beat. Odelay — kinda-sorta named after a Chicano slang term equivalent to "Right on!" — didn't strike Beck or DGC as a commercial pop-rock album, which is ironic given how catchy it all sounds. It's an almost exhaustingly generous record, electric-sliding between genres not from song to song but bar to bar, imagining a room where Mantronix and the Frogs breathe the same air, or revealing that the room has always existed. No sound gets to hang around long enough to wear out its welcome; whenever the party's pace lags, somebody coughs up a fireball of feedback or drops the needle on an old Schubert record for five seconds, or the Enchanting Wizard of Rhythm shows up to low-ride you around the block.
The willful disarray of Mellow Gold has given way to the illusion of disarray, and a sound that flirts, at weird moments, with virtuosity and something resembling grace — think of the way that rippling-silver guitar line from Them's cover of Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" winds its way through "Jack-Ass" like a climbing vine, although it's still very Beck to write a song that pretty and call it "Jack-Ass" for no reason. Word-wise, it's heavy on road-bleary word-pictures ("Chainsmoke Kansas flashdance ass-pants"), cryptic bathroom-graffiti shout-outs ("Make-Out City is a two-horse town!"), and nonsensical get-fresh entreaties; years later he'd tell Rolling Stone that most of the lyrics were scratch-vocal placeholders he grew attached to. But if it's not autobiographical in the traditional way, it still feels deeply personal in sound — like 1996's other greatest California-pop-auteur album, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, its maker has something to say and these needle drops are how he says it. And like a lot of Beck's stuff, its weird sonic/cultural/lyrical conjunctions feel less willfully random and more like the product of real-world experience if you've listened to the record while driving around his old hood, L.A.'s still-fairly-ramshackle East Side — and not just because every third male pedestrian is wearing a hat that only Beck could pull off.
The Non-Follow-up Follow-up
Beck recorded Mutations in two weeks, collaborating for the first time with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, striving — as he later told Acoustic Guitar magazine — "to put some really dainty-ass music on the record." He'd been planning a low-key release on Bong Load before Geffen decided they wanted a fourth-quarter Beck record for 1998 and swooped in to release it themselves. Dismissed at the time4 as a sad-clown curio that dialed the sonic invention of Odelay too far back, it now sounds like the underdiscussed masterpiece of the Geffen years, a death-and-decay-fixated British Invasion homage (check that accent on "Lazy Flies"!) on which even the most dainty-ass moments spoke to Beck's progress as a vocalist and craftsman. That said, the best song is probably "Diamond Bollocks," a galloping rock opera in miniature — fuzz bass, feedback, bursts of musique-concrete birdsong, and a floating-in-my-tin-can fade-out — that the original CD buried as a secret track; it doesn't really fit the subdued mood of the rest of the record, but it hinted at what was to come.
Zero to Tutti-frutti
BECK: "I love turning on to the [R&B] station and that whole culture is so fully going the way it's going — this whole rise of R&B soul settings to gangsta lyrics. And then all the Mexican stations."
TOM PETTY: "R&B videos are very interesting now. I notice that there's a lot of people with ski lodges."
—Beck–Tom Petty joint interview, Musician Magazine, 1997
"This is embarrassing."
—complete text of Greil Marcus's Real Life Rock Top 10 review of Midnite Vultures, Salon, 12/13/99
"About a year ago, I started seeing these ads in the paper for 'Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation' … First it was a little ad. The next week, it was twice as big. And after a month, it was a full page — it just took over. Something in that triggered a bunch of associations and projections. Like, what kind of activities do you have to engage in to get to the point where you need to bring a laser into the equation? The new album exists in that realm."
—Beck, Spin interview, December 1999
Our hero indulges a previously undocumented-on-record love for contemporary black pop, finds a hundred surreal new ways to announce himself as DTF, and confuses more than a few people. Midnite Vultures was received in some circles like a bad joke (imagine if they'd stuck with the working title I Can Smell the VD in the Club Tonight), although nothing here really plays like a novelty song, except for maybe "Sexx Laws," a demented countrypolitan game-show theme with a title borrowed from Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Don't U Know," on which two girls argue about whether ODB's gross or alluring because of "his disposition." (It's also the source of the deathless ODB quote "Easy on my balls, they as fragile as eggs.")
It's an album about sex — sex in the kitchen, sex in the champagne room, sex like the sex in that Mark Leyner novel where the protagonist huffs from a vial of Abe Lincoln's morning breath and ejaculates apricot gel. But it's also about passion, and how our experience of pleasure and desire is inevitably bigger and stranger than the language we have to describe it with, most of which is clinical or childish or silly, and about slow jams and lube-dribble synthesizers and songs about money written for cars that go boom. Mixing business with leather, cold lamping with Man-Thing, and turning "Do you wanna ride on the Baltic Sea?" (on the "Good Ship Ménage-à-Trois," probably) into a pickup line, Beck manages to celebrate funk and R&B as founts of authentic idiosyncrasy, satirizing their excesses while coveting their capacity for carnal expression. Beck squealing "You look good in that sweater / And that aluminum crutch" in a surprisingly supple falsetto felt revolutionary in 1999, when most white rock singers who bothered to address sexuality at all tended to work within parameters laid down by "Closer" and "Nookie"; today it sounds prophetic, anticipating not just the Lonely Island's R&B parodies but Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds, too.
A collaboration with Kool Keith (the delightful "California Rodeo") didn't make the record, but "Hollywood Freaks," on which Beck basically does Kool Keith's voice, did. It's some of his best on-record rapping ("Satin sheets, tropical oils, turn up the heat till the swimming pool boils"), but it's also the closest he's come to doing a stereotypical "black-guy voice" on record (impersonating old bluesmen doesn't count). That's the animating tension of the record, in a way — how much can he adopt and adapt and burlesque R&B without tipping over into minstrelsy? So this is his funniest album, and his most musically accomplished, and the one that does the Funky Robot on the edges of the most knives.5 In that Pitchfork interview, Dombal mentions to Beck that it's one of his favorites, and Beck responds, "Oh, really? I don't think I've heard that from anybody before." Which is sad — in a way, as affected as every minute of it is, Beck seems more present and unambiguously engaged here than he has on any of his subsequent albums. We'll always have "Debra" to remember this moment by — but it's hard not to wonder how many more "Debras" we could have had if the reaction to this record had been different, y'know?
The Sad One
Ah, [deep, long, lonely-as-a-moonlit-desert sigh] Sea Change. Overwhelmingly6 the favorite Beck record of people who distrust sampling, jokes, disruptive bursts of noise, the postmodern impulse, etc.; I distrust these people. Twelve laments written immediately after Beck's 2000 breakup with stylist Leigh Limon, his longtime girlfriend, but not recorded until 2002. That two-year gap is important: This is a record about the feeling of being bereft, created by a man who's recovered enough to aestheticize that feeling, to view it from a distance, like a pretty sunset. Due to its backstory and the absence of lyrics about Norman Schwarzkopf and/or "the hot dog dance," it was received as Beck's most personal and mature work to date, and who knows, maybe it is. The more important thing is that it's as highly stylized an exercise as Vultures — it's just that the sound being self-consciously evoked is world-weary country-rock à la "Wild Horses" and Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" (except for "Paper Tiger," essentially an essay about the genius of Serge Gainsbourg's L'histoire de Melody Nelson). Just because the vocals aren't mannered doesn't mean the music isn't; also, "glum" is a mannerism.
The Problematic Ones
Informed by events both positive (his marriage to actress Marissa Ribisi, the birth of his son Cosimo) and tragic (the death of Elliott Smith), although if you listen close it's only the dark stuff that comes through — the imagery is all bones and bonfires, crows and dry wells, dust and void. When his narrators aren't looking in the rearview mirror at burning skies, they're seeing their own numbers on the bathroom wall; "Broken Drum" is explicitly about Smith and his drugs, but "Missing," in which Beck begs for respite from his memories, might be, too. All that aside, Guero is his reunion with the Dust Brothers, so the beats bump; it's a record assembled with a lighter touch than just about anything else in the catalogue. Street noise bleeds into the mix, East Side landmarks like Tang's Donuts and Cap'n Cork get shout-outs, as do James Joyce and Michael Bolton, and Beastie Boys organist Money Mark drops by. You can't stay bummed out when Money Mark is around. "Girl" has "Hey Ya" in its head, just like everybody else did for a year and a half after The Love Below came out; "Hell Yes," his most excellently stiff robofunk number in a minute, has Christina Ricci on the hook. Why not? It's his first truly underrated record, but it's also the first one that sounds like a deliberate return to moves that worked before.
Which, in a way, it was; Beck made Guero during a break in the arduous three-year (!) recording process that led to The Information. "We started the record in 2003, and we got together annually, the producer [Nigel Godrich] and I," Beck told the BBC. "We combed over everything, and got rid of the things we were tired of, the things that seemed trite." Sounds super fun, right? It's interesting, this collaboration with Godrich, who's best known for being effectively the sixth member of Radiohead, the blood-sweatin'-est studio-tinkerers on the planet. The Information's space-rock/hip-hop fusion sounds almost as fretted-over as Kid A; it's sonically overdetermined and therefore a little emotionally overdetermined. Sometimes the sounds give up something the words don't, though: It takes a couple listens to hear that "New Round" is a new-dad song, but there's a tenderness to the layered vocal that even diehards probably assumed was beyond him. (And then at the end, somebody calls from the next room, and you hear Beck say "Dinnertime, yeah" — the artist as a work-from-home craftsman. It's pretty charming.)
The last track includes snippets of a recorded conversation between Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze about what the ultimate record would look and sound like, which is (a) arguably the most hipsterish thing Beck's ever done, and (b) the kind of flourish that seems like a good idea only after you've been working on the same album for three years. But it's also the least-veiled statement Beck's ever made about his own creative ambition. The record, Eggers says, "has to tell you how to live. It is an instruction guide. It's subtle. It doesn't push. It nudges. It entices or seduces. It has to encompass the whole world, everything that has been, is, and will be."
Recorded with mash-up artiste Danger Mouse at just about the last moment when recording with mash-up artiste Danger Mouse seemed like a hip thing to do, Modern Guilt is Beatles-esque in a number of ways, starting with its length: 33 minutes. Probably the most uptight psych-rock record ever made. Accurately rated.
The perfectionist tendencies that undo the last two records go all the way back to Odelay; you don't get a soundscape that dense without obsessing over it. The term "stream of consciousness" is a constant refrain in writing about Beck's early work, but he hasn't come this far by relying on out-of-nowhere inspiration — he's run this career on skill, craft, and impeccable taste. Artists with this much control over their gift tend to overtighten the screws. And yet I still want to know what he'll do next. There's nothing sillier than prescriptive cultural criticism, but if I had a choice, I'd love to hear him approach recurring Beck themes like death and decay from the perspective of a 42-year-old, a father of two — a proud Scientologist, even. Failing that, I'd go down to the sea for one more turn on the Good Ship Ménage-à-Trois.