Beck is quite an eclectic eccentric songwriter. And his career is getting pretty long and has matured a lot with his 13th album, Modern Guilt. One constant in Beck's career has been his producers. Most of his albums were produced either by the Dust Brothers (Odelay, Geuro) or Nigel Godrich (Mutations, Sea Change, The Information.) Beck has made an interesting switch and worked with none other than up and coming producer Danger Mouse. This may be one of the most interesting changes in Beck's career filled with swerves from slack - folk to funk to hip hop and sometimes all three combined.
The Oughts have seen Beck at his most tumultuous. Sea Change is a masterwork if there ever was one and everything since has been so jam packed, it almost seemed a little much. As much as Guero is an excellent album, it has some tracks that could easily be trimmed from the album to make it work a little bit better as an album. The Information suffers from this a bit more and also suffers from a lack of production. As much as Nigel knows how to shine, he isn't a very good hip-hop oriented producer. He may have been better suited to produce Modern Guilt, but that is neither here nor there.
Modern Guilt is Beck's shortest album and that allows it to grow and mutate and become a cut above it's past two predecessors. I wonder how much may have been left in the studio or in Beck's basement that did not get put onto this album, but I'm sure with the large amount b-sides we already has floating out there, he might have a bunch more songs waiting to be found from these sessions or at least this period of songwriting. Whatever the case may be, we finally get a Beck album that is overall consistent without tracks that are easy to skip over. This doesn't mean perfection, but it means no wandering.
The first track "Orphans" is a summer time, car windows rolled, salt air in your face melody fest. It really sets the tone for the rest of the album. A small dash of backup from Cat Power adds to the airy vibe of a fantastic pop song. Beck doesn't tread very far with any experimentation, but the track still has a fresh sound and an originality to it. "Gamma Ray" sounds like a 60s pop tune and is much more standard than anything Beck has recorded in the past few years. But even here the production is what makes the track. Much more ethereal and spacey comes in the single "Chemtrails." One of the more interesting musical moments on the album, the drums and bass really take hold of the listener. Some of Beck's signature noise freakouts occur near the end and we get a classic cut off into nothingness. It's a very satisfying track. The titular track again has a vibe of mixing the best of Beck's futuristic bleeps spaciness, but is a jaunty throwback to 60s pop. The surfy guitars, piano frolics and crunchy drum beat makes the track sound like something The Zombies or early Stones might attain. Beginning with "Youthless" and continuing on through "Walls" and "Replica", we here the most challenging and contemporary songs structures. Interesting beats abound, funky vibes and more sensory kinetics going on behind the tracks than the first half of the record. "Soul of a Man" has a fantastic riff to compliment the strange guitar wails and the driving kick drum beat. The hypnotic drum and guitar combo on "Profanity Prayers" are reminiscent of space rockers The Secret Machines, but less grandiose and more down to earth in it's simplicity. The finale, "Volcano" may be one of best finest songwriting moments. Lines like "But there's a ghost in my heart/That's trying to see in the dark/I'm tired of people who only want to be pleased, /But I still want to please you...," shows some of the maturity Beck has grown into on the album and how even a 40 year old Beck can still write a fantastic lyric.
The album plays through very quickly and is quite a refreshing and interesting listen. My real love for the album is in it's combo of well written song structures and refreshing production. Danger Mouse definitely had his hand in making Modern Guilt Beck's most consistently good album since Sea Change. A song like "Replica", which DM has a partial writing credit is something that wouldn't happen on a Beck album usually and it makes for one of the finest musical moments the disc has to offer. I'm ambivalent on how to rank this among is other greats, but listening to this record next to Odelay or Midnite Vultures makes one think.... how does one artist sound so drastically different from disc to disc? For Beck, it works from time to time to change it up, and more so than his past two efforts it works very well. Another thing keeping Modern Guilt a cut above his latest is Beck's embrace of his vocal talents. I love Beck's hip-hop efforts as much as anyone else, but his honest voice on songs like "Orphans" or "Volcano" makes the album flow straight through rather than jump from style to style in a very frenetic way that The Information hurt from. This is Beck's pop album on his terms. Catchy yet quirky. Honest but shrouded in mystery.