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Not-So-Merry Prankster

By John Murphy

Posted 9/11/08 at 9:55 PM

He’s been a four-track folk singer, found-sound experimenter, hip-hop beatmaster, Dada-ist lyricist, postmodern collage artist, and mock funk-soul crooner. He mixes electronica and harmonica. He mixes dance beats and downbeat blues. Then he remixes. If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds then shapeshifting singer-songwriter Beck has gray matter to spare. The last few albums have showcased his sonic bipolarity. Sea Change was a gorgeous album of largely acoustic ballads, Guero revisited the freewheeling days of Odelay, and The Information was Beck’s attempt to ape Radiohead’s dystopian paranoia. He’s up, he’s down; he’s the life of the party, then he’s the bleary-eyed hangover.

Modern Guilt is a schizo mash-up of Beck’s two musical personas. In ten songs spread over thirty-five minutes, Beck loads his latest with heavy lyrical baggage, as if the disintegrating world deserved little more than his half-hearted attention. On ‘Chemtrails’: “All I can take from these skies is fog / And all I can see in this light are boats sinking.” On album closer, ‘Volcano’, he sings: “I’ve been drinking all these tears so long / all I’ve got left is the taste of salt in my mouth.”

Modern Guilt references melting ice caps, hurricanes, diseases, drowning, cold storms and empty halls, all accompanied by skittering beats and paranoid string sections. There is a fatalism to Beck’s lyrics, as if the apocalypse was well nigh: “I’ve been riding on this train so long I can’t tell if it’s you or me who is driving us into the ground.” Or: “Down by the sea, swallowed by evil / We’ve already drowned.” Though once the postmodern poster-boy for slacker eclecticism, Beck is rarely given enough credit for the spiritual longing that informs his sound and words. The skater-punk-poet Loser is approaching middle age. He has a wife, a kid. He wants to see the world go on, but doesn’t seem too optimistic. The king of sonic shreds and patches hopes a dose of well-deserved Modern Guilt will inspire our wayward world to confess its sins and seek absolution.