Release Date: Jul 8, 2008
Record label: Interscope
Compared to the waves of grief on Sea Change, Modern Guilt trips easily, as this is a deft tapestry of drum loops, tape splices, and chugging guitars pitched halfway between new wave and Sonic Youth. This may not brood but it's impossible to deny its heaviness, either in its tone or its lyrics. Beck peppers Modern Guilt with allusions to jets, warheads, suicide, all manners of modern maladies, and if the words don't form coherent pictures, the lines that catch the ear create a vivid portrait of unease, a vibe that Danger Mouse mirrors with his densely wound yet spare production.
On his gleefully bizarro 1994 breakout single ”Loser,” a then-24-year-old Beck Hansen described time as ”a piece of wax fallin’ on a termite/Who’s chokin’ on the splinters.” Lines like that would establish the boho-hobo rocker as a sort of Salvador Dalí of sound, a man for whom the sensical and banal were strictly anathema. Today, even as a married father nearing 40, he has managed to remain as musically idiosyncratic as ever. But on Modern Guilt, a simmering cauldron of postmillennial tension helmed by musician/DJ/producer Danger Mouse (a.k.a.
Attempts at comparing Beck albums are futile since each one is an exercise of its own stylistic merit. Still we insist on measuring the impact of the man’s work on his previous accomplishments and/or pitfalls. It’s inevitable. But whether you prefer the scattershot splendor of Odelay or the melancholia of Sea Change, the bluesy wilt of Mutations or the revved-up Guero, Midnight Vultures, Mellow Gold or The Information, the fact persists: Beck is now on his 8th album, and remains unable to be pegged.
If the short history of rock music is any indication, shapeshifting pop prisms like Beck nearly always hit an impasse midway through their varied careers. They either keep evolving with each stylistic about-face of an LP, a la PJ Harvey (ignoring Uh Huh Her), or they can lock themselves within the gleaming, freeze-framed amber that offers hazy reflections of their rainbowed past, as post-Hail to the Thief Radiohead has done. Beck, most assuredly, has fallen into the latter camp, ceasing his aural innovations to become a craftsman, honing what he’s done before into a fine (if increasingly tired) sonic point.
Ever since his Mellow Gold glory days, Beck’s been looking for studio collaborators who could match his freaky fractured wordplay the way Karl Stephenson’s insane beat abstractions once did. The Dust Brothers clicked for a minute until their multi-?layered sampledelia became too predictable, so Beck moved on. His latest studio blind date hookup is with Danger Mouse, who provides some funky Gnarls Barkley-?style beat progressions – the title track could be Crazy, Part II – to which Beck, sounding half-dazed, gamely sings along, even though his heart isn’t in it.
"I think I'm stranded, but I don't know where," confides Beck in his familiar skittering lilt on "Orphans," opening his 10th album with a reflexive anxiety that only deepens with each track. Following the aimless, regressive spin of 2005's Guero and 2006's The Information back to Beck's 1990s pastiche pose, Modern Guilt finally finds a substantive balance between the elusive L.A. slacker's classic ADD rhythms and the somber poignancy of 2002's Sea Change.