As Beck approaches 40 it’s only natural that the ever changing musical chameleon reflects his advancing years in his work. The album’s monochrome, blue note imitating album art and weary title “Modern Guilt” is immediately evocative of a darker, more introspective tone.
After an initial listen it is clear that the album isn’t merely a stylistic front. The music within deals with the humourless subjects of global warming, nuclear warheads and suicide. Throughout the album Beck’s voice is full of a dreary longing as he croons wistfully over the albums many mid to slow tempo numbers. The cheerful, wise cracking Beck of old who could rap over a funk track as a white Californian male without a hint of irony seems long gone. Here the weight of the world is on his shoulders and we are constantly reminded by the album’s many intimate lyrics “Need a teleprompter for my life/Need a pipeline to the night/My body can’t get no relief”.
However the dark tone and melancholy subject matter doesn’t mean the album is by any means a bore. As well as indulging in a more dour mood, Beck has once again changed his sound and influences, although perhaps tellingly his backwards looking choice of 60’s Psychadelica and numerous British Invasion bands as his influence perhaps signals a lot about his frame of mind.
This choice of sound is most evident in two of the albums most immediate highlights, the dark and eerie Chemtrails, reminiscent of early Barret led Pink Floyd with its oppressive and despondent keys and airy falsetto vocals riding over virtuoso and driving drumming. And the chunky surf rock guitar riffs of Gamma Ray, which provides one of the albums lighter notes, but only in the sense that the guitar sounds like it could belong in a episode of the Batman television series.
Apart from these two obvious single candidates, the album is hard work. It lacks any great shift in sound from song to song, rather than the usually eclectic collage of genres, tempos and sounds that inhabit a Beck album, the overall sound remains stiflingly faithful in the 1960’s. Which is to the detriment of the album, especially on initial listens where, along with the albums dark and subtle tone, which often forgoes catchy riffs and big, pop choruses for the sake of lyrical integrity and a more understated quality, it can be hard to quite remember whether it was Orphans, Youthless or Profanity Prayers that you enjoyed the most on your first listen.
However the brevity of the album goes some way to combating the albums faithfulness. The songs are, for the most part, short 3 and a half minute pop songs that don’t overstay their welcome. Even the album itself comes in at little over half an hour, which is a welcome change from his sometimes sprawling previous albums.
The album is very much similar to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida in the sense that Beck appears to be at a crossroads. As a result the album is full of conflict and lacks a unified direction. Chemtrails Inparticular is a clear sign that he is able to pen brilliant songs and still indulge in his penchant for deep, Dylanesque messages. However a handful of songs on Modern Guilt are not quite filler, but not quite fully formed songs. The sparse production and minimal construction of songs leaves several feeling as if they’re missing a hook, not necessarily a big football terrace chant ala E-pro or Loser, but – something.
Dangermouse’s inclusion as producer goes someway to preventing the album from being torn apart by this struggle, his previous work with Damon Albarn on Demon Days and The Good, The Bad and The Queen shows his capability of crafting albums of “noir-pop”. It is his presumable inclusion of layers of ever present electronic beeps and blips throughout that help to sharpen and contemporise Beck’s indulgence in psychadelica, saving it from sounding like a dry, soulless tribute to a bygone era and creating a sort of electrodelica sub-genre in the process.
If Modern Guilt is Beck showcasing his own inner struggles and creating a portrait of 21st century paranoia and angst. A step away from the musical grandstanding and posturing of the old Beck, then it is somewhat ironic that the album is saved by being brief enough to prevent him boring us with his new low-key storyteller reinvention.
As it is the album is a brief snack sized delight, the narcotic psychadelica of Chemtrails, the Surf Rock of Gamma Ray and Bluesy swagger of Soul of a Man are all amongst some of the best songs of the year so far. It’s just a partial shame that Beck doesn’t appear entirely sure that you can be smart and catchy all the time.
MP3: Beck – Soul of a Man