By: Dennis Cook
Blink and you just might miss what a jewel Modern Guilt (released July 8 on DGC Records) is. While one's initial reaction might be, Hmm, another Beck album," this turns out to be Mr. Hansen's most consistent, well constructed long player since 1999's Midnite Vultures.
Think I'm stranded but I don't know where/ I got this diamond that don't know how to shine." Thus opens this tight 33-minute distillation of all things good about one of the finest modern lyricists and broad appeal musicians today. For all of his quirks, Beck has always been pretty damn accessible (try not to bob your dome to Loser"). The kooky bits generally reveal themselves in the details - devil's inside fabulous haircuts, sailors sucking on lollipops, mysteries doused in Spanglish - but it's not hard to understand how hipsters AND mall kids both dig him. And he's never been more flatly appealing than Modern Guilt. He's gone back to just being an extraordinarily skilled crafter of fascinating, smart, often funny contemporary odes after the clinging mope of 2002's Sea Change and the just-trying-too-hard pair of Guero (2005) and The Information (2006). Maybe like many of his fans, Beck felt he needed to reinvent the wheel each time out but if it's rolling fine why mess with it?
Thankfully, uber-knob-twiddler Danger Mouse shares the production chair and just refines Beck's many charms, sharpening each facet into appealing focus. Like another great 2008 release, Hot Chip's Made In The Dark (see our review here), technology serves the songs rather than glossing over deficiencies. While there's plenty to snag your attention, the blips and hard guitars don't draw undo attention, all merely part of a well thought out whole. Beck is a thoroughly 21st century boy and his music reflects that electro-chromatic character. He couldn't have existed in any other era, and his explorations continue the bardic line, offering up songs that give us perspective on our shared state of being. And there's plenty of ruminating on today's atmosphere, especially man's internal temperature, inside Modern Guilt.
In a cast iron cage/ You couldn't help but stare/ Like a creature with the laws of a brothel/ And the fireproof soul of a preacher/ With your lingo coined from the sacrament of a casino/ On a government loan with a guillotine in your libido.
Disquiet isn't usually this tuneful or charming. Even as his soul twitters and jerks inside the verses, Beck and Mouse load us into gleaming amusement park contraptions that convey us around in a most enjoyable way. What works (so well) against his shiny packaging is the craggy bluesman running the contraptions. There's antique folk roots lingering underneath Beck's post-modern discontent, bouncing dustbowl, twelve bar echoes against the spacious dub ceilings and shimmering, psych-inflected walls. Perhaps, it's this old soul" inside his music, not just on Modern Guilt but throughout his catalog, that infuses it with quiet depth. As seemingly disposable as some of his work can seem, there's a sustainability to Beck that's kept us fascinated for 14 years, and Modern Guilt will likely continue to spark our collective interest. If we're left hungry for more as the final chords of closer Volcano" die away, that's just confirmation that he's dishing up something worth devouring. Freak on, skinny, white Prince, freak on
Jumped into the volcano/ Was she trying to make it back/ Back into the womb of the world/ I've been drinking all these tears so long/ All I've got left is the taste of salt in my mouth/ I don't know where I've been/ But I know where I'm going.