Beck has long been known as a genius of recycling; spinning old sounds, tunes, and instruments in surprising and fun ways. He’s also been known for his humor, although the last few albums, getting some critical acclaim but never reaching the levels of O-De-Lay, have been more sprawling and experimental. In Modern Guilt [Interscope], Mr. Hansen’s tenth album, this time working with DJ Danger Mouse (whose credited with “Beats”), Beck has reached a level of perfection most thought would never be seen by this artist again.
Modern Guilt is a different mood for Beck. The old sounds, the catchy riffs, are all still there. But there’s a somber, dreamy quality layered into the psychedelia. It’s a grown-up album that will likely never get the airplay that O-De-Lay did, but really, who cares? I don’t see any station playlists touting Radiohead’s In Rainbows, either, and that band is laughing all the way to the bank.
No, Beck has instead put together a lean, smart, stylish album with a little something for every mood. Some of it’s danceable. A lot of it’s dreamy. The vocals are intentionally muddied and melancholy, but it’s all the best of Beck. The lyrics are a bit darker, while simultaneously being more abstract; a stream-of-consciousness wordplay that would confound the best psychiatrist.
Video: ‘Modern Guilt’ live at the Echo in Los Angeles, June 9, 2008
The skittering, hand-clapping, opening track, “Orphans,” features backing vocals courtesy of Chan Marshall (Cat Power) which give it a Beach Boys-feeling that’s surprisingly well-mixed with the hip-hop drumming. She also drops in on track #3, “Chemtrails.” There’s a Beatles-y waltz on the title track, but make no mistakes: this is no rip-off and it’s more Radiohead-random than Beatles-predictable. “Youthless” is cool with its effervescence, its grinding bass and its Kraftwerk keyboarding.
While a lot of critics are leaning toward the easy label of “psychedelic”, Modern Guilt is so much more than that. Stand-out tracks include the twisted surf number (and maybe also a little reminiscent of the Beastie Boys at their best), “Gamma Ray,” the rootsy, stomping and completely groovy “Soul of a Man,” and the conspiracy-theory loaded blissful beauty, “Chemtrails.” The last track, “Volcano,” erupts too soon—but maybe not. Beck knew when to stop and he wasn’t interested in filler, to be sure. This is an album to listen to, again and again. With no guilt.