Though I'd hardly say he's hardly floundering, Beck's last two albums were a bit of a disappointment for me. The gloomy, downbeat songwriting on Sea Change was an interesting and surprising turn, but in the end it seemed like Beck trying to do a Nick Drake impersonation that, while adequate, was no substitute for the real thing, and didn't really play to Beck's strong suits. Guero, on the other hand marked a return to the Beck we all know and love, but it seemed like a retreat, and an attempt to recapture past success. To that effect it worked: Guero sold a lot of copies, and it had a handful of great songs, but many of the songs sounded too much like sideways versions of old Beck songs and it lacked the creative spark Beck is so known for.
Now I still love the guy, but I was slightly apprehensive when I heard his new album was coming so shortly after the last. But my worries were laid to rest upon first listen. This album is everything I've come to love about Beck. It's manages to bring together the atmospherics and songwriting of Mutations and Sea Change and pull them together with the kind of experimental electronica and toe-tapping beats pioneered on Odelay, and in so doing creates a completely new sound that should satisfy fans on both sides.
The album begins suitable with the languid and distant hip hop of Elevator Music. This sets the tone for the album perfectly. This album is layered, and funky, but never high energy. It's the other end of the spectrum from Midnite Vultures with an aloof sounding Beck rhyming over some echoey, eerie, and atmospheric beats. Choirs and cello strings regularly accompany the synthesizers and turntables. Beck evokes a similar funk ennui in Cell Phone's Dead and We Dance Alone, both very strong tracks.
There are pop moments as well, though. Beck puts his freestyle flow aside for the second track, Think I'm In Love, which could be the follow up to last year's Girl. It has an infectious chorus backed by bubbly ivory tickling, and a cello-backed bridge that cements the tracks as pop gold. He follows it up with the even more upbeat Strange Apparition, which evokes shades of Fatboy Slim's Praise You.
The album does sag a bit at the end of the disc. Motorcades tinny racket falls to connect, and the synth cheese of Movie Theme proves too overbearimg. The disc closes with a 10-minute medley of 3 songs, the middle of which is worth listening too and the ending of which comes off as either vapid pot talk or Scientologist proselytizing, I'm not sure which.
But the bottom line is abundantly clear: This is Beck's strongest album in many years, and a far better heir to Odelay than the trying-too-hard Guero. It manages to be a step forward for the artist, while still playing to his strong suits. The production is slick, everything about it is quintessentially Beck, and it doesn't sound like anything else out there. We have a winner.