Category Archives: Beck
Beck – Sea Change
As its name implies, Sea Change is the biggest departure from the rest of Beck’s catalog and for one reason and one reason alone: he steps out from behind the curtain to reveal a vulnerable man. While many artists get stuck in the habit of only writing about themselves, Beck took the other route, writing about really anything besides himself, even if that “anything” was simply nonsense. Here, he fixes his gaze squarely on his broken relationship with his longtime girlfriend, how he’s been derailed and isn’t sure why, how he’s lost his ballast and is left adrift. It may have been easy to presume that one of the reasons Beck chose not to write directly about himself was that he simply wasn’t sure how. He was always a wordsmith but one who told riddles and spat jokes, not bared his soul. Fortunately, he squashes this assumption throughout Sea Change, his lyrics trimmed and focused, using evocative imagery and surprisingly emotional directness. Listen to how he winds down the chorus on “Guess I’m Doing Fine” (“It’s only lies that I’m living/It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine”), trying not to admit to himself the weight of his situation. Throughout, he makes similar admissions, and even if he doesn’t find the answers to his questions, he seems to at least find a bit of solace by the time “Side Of The Road” rolls around.
It’s not just the words that make this album a milestone, though. With the help of Nigel Godrich, Beck crafts a warm, woozy sound that’s grounded in woeful country, British psychedelia and folky singer/songwriterism. As such, it’s full of tense string arrangements (courtesy of his father), resigned keyboards and gloomy harmonies, all of which wrap around his voice and acoustic guitar, both of which sound richer and more soulful than ever. All in all, the album is pitched somewhere between the delicate melancholy of Nick Drake, Serge Gainsbourg’s spooky seductiveness and Bob Dylan, whose emotionally bloodied Blood On The Tracks is one of the more obvious touchstones. Sure, this doesn’t sound too far removed from his work on One Foot In The Grave or Mutations, but he delves deeper here, his songs more nuanced and better-crafted, able to stand up to the psychedelic touches that Godrich adds. Those looking for the mercurial shifts in style and colorful humor of Odelay or Midnite Vultures need not apply—this is a strictly somber affair. But hopefully even those listeners will stick around because Sea Change is one of the great break-up albums ever recorded and a testament to Beck’s musicianship. It may not have been as innovative or influential as some of his other work, but he never made a better record than this.
Beck – Midnite Vultures
Midnite Vultures was touted as Beck’s real follow-up to Odelay, since the loose psych-folk sessions of Mutations were intended to be an aside in his discography. This reading of Vultures gives the impression that it’s another wildly careening, genre-hopping rollercoaster, the way Mellow Gold and Odelay were, yet this doesn’t turn out to be the case. Instead, like Mutations, Vultures focuses only a handful of genres—this time around, it’s soul, funk and rap with a few hints of country for good measure. Before its release, Beck described this record as “a party record with dumb sounds and dumb songs and dumb lyrics,” and on that front, Midnite Vultures succeeds gloriously, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. Surely, this record contains some of Beck’s most clever arrangements, and the music is lively and exciting, with “Debra” and “Get Real Paid” sounding like great, lost Prince tracks. Meanwhile, “Sexx Laws,” with its Southern soul horns and breakbeat drums, is simply one of the best and catchiest songs Beck would ever pen. Vultures also houses some of his funniest lyrics, full of ridiculous come-ons (“Touch my ass if you’re qualified”) and zany character sketches. Because it’s so consistently playful and tightly constructed, it’s a shame that something creeps in that has never appeared before on a Beck album: a sense of parody. Remember, he called these “dumb songs,” and while he clearly put a lot of effort in the music, Vultures sometimes gives off the impression that he’s ridiculing the very party he started. This is nowhere more clear than on “Hollywood Freaks,” which, with its electronically modified vocals and gangsta clichés, manages to nearly crash the momentum built up in the first half. While Beck has certainly poked fun at certain styles of music in the past, the over-the-top caricatures that sometimes appear here are a bit off-putting, even if they sometimes add to the fun like on “Peaches & Cream.” Luckily, the second half of the record helps to distract from this concern, even if the feeling still lingers. There’s enough to keep the album from being one of Beck’s best works, but Midnite Vultures, especially its nearly flawless first half, is still one of the purest rushes he would ever deliver.
Beck – Mutations
If Mutations doesn’t sound like a follow-up to Odelay, it’s because it wasn’t meant to be. It was initially designed as another specialty release like One Foot In The Grave, but given the success of Odelay, the presence of producer Nigel Godrich (who was hot off of Radiohead’s acclaimed OK Computer) and the quality of the record, Geffen decided to release Mutations itself. Despite its major-label release, Mutations doesn’t sound particularly commercial—it’s a record of psychedelic folk, rock and blues, with hints of country and Brazilian music. At the same time, though, it’s not defiantly underground the way Beck’s first two indie releases were either. There’s a real warmth in the music here, something that, up until this point, only surfaced rarely on Beck records. Godrich’s production helps achieve this tone, finding just the right pitch between slick and ragged, making the record sound crisp yet human. But it’s not just Godrich: Mutations marks the first album where Beck entered the studio with a full backing band. The result is an inviting and nuanced record, one that is deeper than it initially appears. For his part, Beck turns in a stellar set, including some of the most affecting songs he’s ever penned, such as the somber psychedelia of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” the underrated alt-rock classic “Cold Brains,” and the sighing “We Live Again.” And for an album whose title pays tribute to the influential Brazilian group Os Mutantes, it comes as no surprise Beck dips into bossa nova with the sprightly “Tropicalia,” one of the best songs here. Lyrically, he opens up a bit more than in the past, often leaving behind his trademark non sequiters for a kind of elegiac, even morose, poetry that fits the directness of the music. But for all his talk of doom and gloom, Mutations never despairs, and it really isn’t a downer, not when the musicians conjure such a relaxed atmosphere with such offhanded charm. Although, to an extent, the sound of Mutations is a product of the 1990s, the songs, performances and styles explored here make it feel timeless, the mark of a very good record by any measure.
Beck – Odelay
After his two indie detours, Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot In The Grave, Beck returned to the major leagues with Odelay, an astonishing work that proved his music inimitable. Taking the genre-transcending formula of Mellow Gold to dizzying new heights, Beck manages to tackle even more here, from easy listening to white noise and certainly everything in between, sometimes within one song, sometimes within a few seconds. Surely anybody can put a hip-hop beat over a country song but the astonishing thing about the record is that nothing seems out of place—it all seems like it’s supposed to fit that way, even when the sounds are at their most fragmented. This has much to do with the Dust Brothers’ production as Beck’s songwriting. Unlike their groundbreaking work on Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, the Dust Brothers don’t provide the music’s foundation but instead add small touches and samples, lending Odelay a surprising cohesion, unlike the abrupt shifts on Mellow Gold. By and large, though, Beck is the real focus here, his songs thrilling and compelling no matter what style he writes in. Sure, each song is rooted in a certain genre, but he bends, twists and transcends each style, creating unpredictable combinations that bristle with invention. Even when he plays it straight, such as on the folkier numbers “Jackass” and “Ramshackle,” Beck’s songwriting continues to shine, despite the aid of postmodern gimmickry. His words still resemble free verse, but his imagery is both funnier and more evocative than it was on Mellow Gold, which only adds to the richness and infectiousness of the record, whether it be the cowboy pastiche on “Sissyneck” or the “two turnables and a microphone” hook of “Where It’s At.” Though genre-mashing would later become the norm rather than the exception, few would take the same approach as Beck did here, perhaps fearing accusations of copycatting—this album is so distinctive, it would be difficult to use as a starting point without simply replicating its achievements. As a result, Odelay remains one of the best and most original albums to arrive out of the ’90s alternative movement.
Beck – One Foot In The Grave
Released on the legendary K Records, One Foot In The Grave, Beck’s third release of 1994, is the polar opposite of his previous two records: a hushed folk album, focused almost entirely on Beck and his guitar. Though Stereopathetic Soulmanure and Mellow Gold revealed his eclecticism and versatility, it was possible to mistake Beck’s music as gimmicky since all the genre-mashing and disjointed production sometimes overshadowed the quality of his songwriting. Here, however, it is clear that he is a musician of considerable depth. While he takes a few noisier detours (“Burnt Orange Peels,” “Ziplock Bag”), One Foot In The Grave finds Beck playing through a series of short, meditative tracks often with minimal arrangements. Beginning with the folk standard “He’s A Mighty Good Leader,” he reworks folk and country structures, making the album sound both modern and timeless. “Cyanide Breath Mint,” “I Get Lonesome,” and the resentful “Asshole” are particular highlights, and vocalist Sam Jayne and producer/K Records founder Calvin Johnson temper the more haunting parts of the album with warm harmonies. This is particularly true of the closing number “Atmospheric Conditions,” whose slide guitar and light percussion camouflage Beck and Johnson’s dispiritedness. Beck would later return to this straightforward singer/songwriterism on Mutations and Sea Change, but those would be cleaner, more expansive affairs. As it stands, One Foot In The Grave is an understated gem of a record, one that showed the scope of Beck’s talents, but also one he would never make again.
Beck – Stereopathetic Soulmanure
Thanks to his special record deal with Geffen, Beck was still able to release a few more records on indie labels. The first of which, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, was released shortly before Mellow Gold on L.A. punk label Flipside. Essentially a clearinghouse of folk and country songs, comedic live recordings and noise experiments, Stereopathetic is undoubtedly the oddest, most difficult and least consistent album in Beck’s oeuvre. It actually feels more like a compilation than a studio album since there is very little that binds together his shifts from Half Japanese-styled primitive punk to old-timey folk. That being said, even though much of this is simply novelty, there are a few left-field classics that surface. “Rowboat” is a gentle Appalachian hillbilly tune (Johnny Cash was so impressed with it, he later covered it on his album Unchained); “Puttin’ It Down” reaches back to Beck’s anti-folk roots, and his humor emerges on “Satan Gave Me A Taco,” a surreal, slow-building country song. This isn’t his brightest moment, and it can really only be recommended to hardcore fans, but Stereopathetic Soulmanure helped confirm Beck as one of the singular talents of the ’90s alternative explosion.
Beck – Mellow Gold
Though he released a few limited-edition cassettes, for all intents and purposes, Mellow Gold was Beck’s debut, the album at which the world at large became acquainted with his slacker persona and free-form eclecticism. At the time, critics tagged Beck as both the Voice of a Generation and a one-hit wonder, thanks to his delirious folk-rap, “Loser,” one of the quintessential ’90s anthems. Although he would later go on to debunk those claims with a long, successful career, Mellow Gold is such a solid debut, so full of ideas, that it’s hard to believe he was ever thought of as a flash in the pan. Beck, at this stage in his career, is commonly referred to as “ironic” and a “prankster,” but while his music and lyrics bristle with humorous contradictions (Did he just sing about a ‘giant dildo crushing the sun’ on a brooding folk track?), these songs aren’t elitist parodies. He blends folk, rap, blues, country and the avant-garde freely and without hesitation, seemingly without effort, but he has a genuine love for these genres, even when he pokes fun from time to time. Aside from the iconic “Loser,” there is the the psychedelic rap of “Beercan,” which matches it in quality; the drowsy folk of “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997;” and the garage-blues of “Fuckin With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock);” And since the entirety of Mellow Gold was culled from Beck’s cassette recordings, the genres whip from one extreme to another, song to song (most notably from the silly folk of “Nightmare Hippy Girl” to the grinding industrial of “Mutherfuker”). Yet though the production may not tie the record together, Beck’s songwriting ability and colorful lyrics, which aren’t as nonsensical as they initially appear, grant it some cohesion. Mellow Gold also anticipated the following few decades of indie and alternative music where the term “genre-bending” often became the norm rather than the exception. He would continue developing this varied, anything-goes approach, but never again would Beck’s gonzo humor and bedroom experimentalism be on such full display again.