Musical chameleon Beck released his latest album, "Modern Guilt," on his 38th birthday and the songs found therein display an artist far removed from the 23-year-old Los Angeles slacker who was telling us he was 'un perdedor' on "Mellow Gold," his 1994 breakthrough release. This disc finds Mr. Hansen truly exploring the heavy themes of death and personal reflection for the first time, and the results are nothing short of stellar. Middle age, it seems, has its benefits.
Beck tried this feat, the "serious record," two years ago on 2006's "The Information," but the message was pretty much lost to critics and fans, who thought the filtered-through-a-ColecoVision beats and lyrics about cellular phones were more post-apocalyptic and self-referential than anything else. He gets straight to the point this time around, with 10 concise tracks, a 34-minute runtime and not an ounce of leftover ideas to clutter the proceedings.
To the delight of fans the world over, Beck enlisted Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), the reigning critical darling of the music-production world, to man the boards on "Modern Guilt." They make an excellent team, what with their shared taste for `60s psychedelic rock, twitchy percussion and looped string samples -- not to mention their impeccable ear for catchy riffs. The surf-rock bass line that serves as the backbone for "Gamma Ray" makes it the closest approximation to a pop song Beck has written in years.
Perhaps tired of hearing that his last two records were trying too hard to be "Odelay 2.0," Beck has dialed back his use of left-field audio samples and bits of obscure and forgotten songs from decades past, choosing instead to interpret those influences and recreate them as fairly straightforward rock tunes. People seem to forget that, if you ignore the space-cowboy production flourishes that saturate every last inch of Beck's late-`90s output, he was -- and still is -- one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of the last 25 years.
Of course, it wouldn't be a true Beck album if he didn't make room in his lyrics for a full notebook's worth of wacky one-liners and vaguely interpretable philosophical musings. The churning "Soul of a Man" finds our hero spitting out non sequiturs as if he made them up a few seconds before walking into the recording booth. "Beat my bones against the wall/Put a bank note on your bond/Gris-gris and a goldenrod/Deep down in a hollow log," goes one verse, the words apparently chosen for no reason other than to meet the song's syllabic needs.
"Chemtrails," the slow and dreamy lead single, addresses the urban legend that the vapor trails from commercial airliners contain chemicals that, once they fall to Earth and are inhaled by an unaware populace, allow the government to control us. (Sample lyric: "You and me hit by a test of white evil/Watching the jet planes go by") Now, that may just be the Scientology talking, but the fact remains that "Chemtrails" is one of the most beautifully composed Beck ballads in recent memory.
Prior to the release of "Modern Guilt," there was a lot of excited chatter over the news that soul singer Cat Power (Chan Marshall) would be making a cameo appearance on two of the album's tracks, "Orphans" and "Walls," but her contributions are so incidental (and not to mention barely audible) that I think mentioning them four-fifths of the way through my review will suffice.
The most notable aspect of "Modern Guilt," in my opinion, is that it is the first Beck album since 1999's "Midnite Vultures" to not have a single clunker on it. Perhaps they were crafted that way, to get in and out in less than four minutes each and leave you wanting more. And there's no guilt in that, modern or otherwise.