Monday, July 19, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 67 - Beck

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

As I've continued on with this project, I've noticed that I'm a big fan of versatile performers. I like those musical acts that can blend, meld and adapt themselves to a variety of genres, rather than just sitting in one camp. I'm not quite sure if it's because I appreciate the talent involved or just because I have a short musical attention span and like to hear things get mixed up on an album I'm going to be listening to non-stop all week.

Beck is a master at this sort of musical integration. His albums veer through all sorts of influences. Rap, funk, folk music, dance-pop, even a little bit of country - Beck cycles through them all with a knack for good songwriting and immediately sounding at home in wherever he lands. The mashups and dense sonic backgrounds of Odelay are almost like a metaphor for Beck's entire creative output, throwing a little bit of everything into one pot and stirring it into something that somehow sounds wholly original.

If the grand narrative of the History of Popular Music has fractured, then I picture Beck as a wandering vagrant, picking up bits and pieces for the ruins of the once monolithic genres. He takes what he needs from different styles and glues them together as he sees fit. It has the potential for disaster, but with Beck's songwriting talent and his uncanny knack for choosing quality producers, he's remarkably effective.

But such an approach got me thinking about this kind of art. This cultural pastiche of various styles is by no means unique to Beck, or even popular music (a lot of modern "classical" music melds older styles in a similar manner). Stitching together the tenets of other genres is what's in, right now. 21st-century culture has become remarkably self-conscious about its own art; artists are very vocal about their specific influences and their attempts to meld styles. But it makes me wonder if this sort of historical collage of styles is here to stay, or if it's nothing but a passing fad.

The history of music is rich and varied enough to allow for artists to pick and choose different styles to stitch together into a new tapestry. But how long can this keep up? In these days of hyper-specific sub- and sub-sub-genres, will there ever be any overarching generational styles again? Or will there just be an ever-increasing alphabet soup of hyphenated sub-genres that all draw influenced from each other?



MY LISTENING: I listened to Odelay (1996) every day this week. I also listened to Mellow Gold (1994) and Sea Change (2002) three times, and Mutations (1998) and Midnite Vultures (1999) twice.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I knew that one song, "Loser," so I had pretty much written him off as a novelty act one-hit wonder. On a whim, I checked out Odelay from my local library, which inspired me to change my perspectives and delve a bit deeper into his work.

WHAT I LIKED: There seem to be two sides to Beck - the joyous Beck who makes those sonically dense party anthems with the nonsense lyrics, and the more contemplative Beck who puts out sparser tunes, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and harmonica.

I like the first Beck well enough. "Loser" is a fun song to listen to, even if the lyrics are fairly nonsensical. The rest of Mellow Gold sounds like it was recorded in a living room (which it was). But that adds to the homegrown vibe. On the best songs, Beck is just a regular dude having the time of his life, tongue firmly in cheek as he pulls out trick after trick, on tracks like "Fuckin With My Head."

The party continues on Odelay, as Beck wraps up his solid song structures and surreal lyrics in the collection of the Dust Brothers' samples. Songs like "Devil's Haircut" or "The New Pollution" might not mean a damn thing (I suspect they don't), but they passed the Driving Test, meaning that I always seemed to subconsciously speed up my car when these songs came on. They're catchy, groovy, the work of an artist who has gleaned the best bits of the past forty years of music to fit his own ends.

But the softer side of Beck contains a surprising amount of beauty and emotional depth, and I found myself liking this second Beck better by the end of the week. Mutations manages to keep Beck's requisition of musical styles, but put them all into a subdued folk rock album. The sitar on "Nobody's Fault But My Own," the Brazilian influence of "Tropicalia," the lounge instruments of "O Maria" - all of these manage to integrate a myriad of influences into simple folk songs of death and decay.

Sea Change follows the same path, and even if this album is a bit more one-note in its approach, I still found a lot to like. The lavish strings of "Paper Tiger" and the the simple hook of "Lost Cause" are both wonderful. And then there's "Beautiful Way," the lone somber song from Midnite Vulture, that features a great instrumental coda. Beck has a great talent in using a very specific instrument in a very specific place to take a run-of-the-mill song and make it memorable.


Beck's happier fare is great stuff to party to, but in spite of its clever instrumentation and great production, there's not a lot of core to some of his songs. On Mellow Gold , and even Odelay, one gets the feeling that Beck's surreal lyrics, delivered with such sincerity that you want to believe there's some clever wordsmith at work, really don't mean anything. Lines like "In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey / Butane in my veins and I'm out to cut the junkie" are clever enough to get a pass, but songs like "Steal My Body Home" are lyrically insubstantial, despite giving off a great musical vibe. Sometimes I wondered if Beck's songwriting ability outpaced his abilities as a lyricist; he seems to have a lot of great songs with lyrics attached only as an afterthought. And when there's no good music to support the lyrics, like "Minus," the song fails utterly.

Other times, Beck's sense of irony just didn't work for me - this sort of humor is something that works better in small doses, rather than across entire albums. I have no desire to listen to him imitate white-trash neighbors on "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs" or hear him scream himself hoarse on "Mutherfucker." Similarly, the glossy sheen of Midnite Vulture didn't do a whole lot for me; "Hollywood Freaks" is just one song I didn't like on an album where Beck seems more interested in satirizing other styles than adapting them. It comes off as uninspired.

Finally, I'm not a big fan of Beck's version of white-boy rap. It works well enough on the one-off "Loser," but I quickly tired of songs like "Novacane."

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's more Beck, and (if the critics are to be believed), he's existed for nearly twenty years without a seriously awful dud in his discography. Guero (2005), The Information (2006) and Modern Guilt (2008) are the three most recent Beck albums that might merit exploration.