Nice career, Beck.

8 May

Talking with some friends recently while looking back in time at some of the bigger solo acts of certain decades, we wondered where our david bowie or bob dylan was.  Please don’t tell us the 2000’s will be remembered for the rise and fall of Britney.  We want another rise and fall of ziggy stardust.  That is, where have all the innovative, game-changing pioneers gone?  Speaking specifically of solo artists, we could think of very few pop(py) solo acts that really had stood the test of multiple albums and decades of shifting styles to remain relevant.  Then we thought of Beck.

Beck may still live in the hearts of all the dropout-minded high schoolers from the mid-90’s with the buzzkill anthem “Loser” or the alt-rap block party “Where It’s At”, but post Odelay Beck has seen lots of shape shifting and certainly plenty  of wonderful songs.  What makes Beck unique is what makes any solo artist who sells lots of records over multiple decades unique: the ebbs and flows of evolving musical output.  Beck has worn many masks as a performer and music maker, and just as Picasso in his own right had a blue period, a cubist period, and a surrealist period, so Beck has had an indie period of rawer, rougher song-writing, a more avant garde period, a Sea Change period, and a more mature poppy period which he is still in.  To want Beck to return to the 90’s sound is to wish him to artistically devolve.

Beck’s beginnings as a 90’s alternative oddity have certainly shaped what was expected of him as a career musician.  This is why, in my opinion, 2002’s Sea Change marked the game-changing album for beck.  1999’s Midnight Vultures, while possibly being the ultimate realization of Beck’s neon house-party dreamland, is somewhat expected given previous musical eccentricities.  But it was the aptly-named Sea Change (or was it the 3 years between albums) that decidedly altered beck not only in terms of overall sound, but in terms of perception.  All of a sudden, he wasn’t a pop music showcase.  The script was flipped and all the bells and whistles that beautifully decorated his song-writing on albums past had been stripped away, leaving nothing but a guitar to lean on.  I specifically remember my dad and I sitting down to watch David Letterman during my freshman year of college before Sea Change had been released.  My dad asked who beck was, and after playing a couple tracks it was clear that my dad, who only has a heart for Simon and Garfunkel, would not be interested.  When Beck came out to play the simple, meditative “Lost Cause”, I heard a distinctly surprised “hmph!” from the other side of the living room.  How could he not?

Since Sea Change, Beck has not strayed too far from his 90’s pop roots, but has certainly added a much more glossy sheen to his patented sound.  Guero blew out the speakers of 2005, proclaiming the return of the funky, back-alley, beat-happy Beck we have come to love.  “Hell Yes”, “E-Pro” and a couple others have become live standards and fit perfectly along side “Devil’s Haircut”, “Hollywood Freaks” and other Beck catalogue staples.  The Information, 2006’s out-of-nowhere release had similarities with Guero and sometimes felt like a b-sides version of Guero.  This is not to say that “Nausea”, “Strange Apparition” and “Think I’m in Love” (among others) aren’t great Beck songs, but when held up to his other albums this one seemed to be his most vanilla.  Maybe it feels this way because there was such a simple (and reductive at times) musical feel to apply to the previous albums: Mellow Gold is an early morning coffee jolt of backyard electro-folk.  Odelay was the slacker-rapper hodgepodge.  Mutations was a very upstanding, singer-songwriter incarnation of the beck sound.  Midnight Vultures, the aforementioned neon house-party.  Sea Change was the slow-burning exhibition of singalong, sunset-ing tunes.  Guero was the “Beck is back” album, decked out in all the typical beck jams.  Then comes The Information.  I just can’t decide where it belongs in the scope of Beck’s colorful career.

Last year, Modern Guilt marked yet another subtle mutation in form.  The 10 short tracks that form this album all exude a certain confidence that seems to sound like Beck is really enjoying himself with his music again (not that he wasn’t at any point).  A mature and content Beck showed off his polished song-writing skills all over the album.  It’s been a great career to follow, and hopefully one that will continue and be remembered as representative of some kind of musical image of the 1990’s and 2000’s.  It wouldn’t disappoint me at all to see him identified with either of those two decades of my life.  He’s got to be one of the more memorable musical figures from these last two decades, not for antics, drug rehab, or other publicity-generating fluff.  Beck will be remembered for being a steady, often brilliant artist of music.

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