SONIC REDUCER Watching the chopped and cropped black-and-white promo vid for Beck's new album, Modern Guilt (DGC) a study in cut-rate Super 8 ways to make static images of the reedy rocker and cohorts look exciting and fresh I can't help but think of Velvet Underground hanger-on/documenter Andy Warhol and his bricolage brethren and kindred experimentalist Bruce Conner, who sadly passed July 7. Memories of the toothpick-thin, turtlenecked Bay Area beat-gen grandpappy shaking and shimmying beside breakdance troupe Sisterz of the Underground on an impromptu dance floor at the Guardian's 2005 Goldies bash are burned forever in my olde retina, for sure right alongside indelible images from Conner's Ray Charlesdriven Cosmic Ray (1962) and his Toni Basil-go-go-happy Breakaway (1966). Where's the joy in contemputf8g Conner's fierce life force one that happily, darkly captured the pure products of America gone mad finally breaking away and making a run for the ether? And likewise in an era of diminished expectations, recession-inspired belt-tightening, and exploding oil prices who cares to question why Beck has got the 21st-century blues but bad?
Readings of Modern Guilt's songs as covert Scientology tracts can wait: the overt critical prognosis is that Beck's latest disc is terminally bummed. "Modern Guilt sounds like an obligation," writes Amy O'Brien of Vancouver Sun. "It sounds like Beck has disengaged from his music." Meanwhile, Greg Kot of Chicago Tribune theorizes that the songwriter and producer Danger Mouse's collaboration "sounds like it was dashed off between appointments on Danger Mouse's increasingly stocked calendar." All grouse about the overall darkness of Beck's mood: there are ruminations on bones, abandonment, and corrosive rain on the gluey exotica-bop "Orphans" and on melting ice caps, hurricanes, and heat waves amid the blissfully brisk, purring pop "Gamma Ray." "Replica" takes on a drum 'n' bass face, bright chimes tolling with dread at the age of mechanical reproduction, whereas "Profanity Prayers" invokes a spanking Devo rhythm and inverts "Mr. Soul" motifs to encapsulate soulless urban drift. "You couldn't help but stare like a creature with the laws of a brothel and the fireproof bones of a preacher with your lingo coined from the sacrament of a casino ... ," Beck breathes. "You stare into space trying to discern what to say now and you wait at the light and watch for a sign that you're breathing." We've heard such expressions of ennui before from Beck, but can the weariness of age he made 38 on July 8, the date of Modern Guilt's release lie at the heart of the album, behind the minimalist bass bumps of "Youthless"? Or is Beck simply saving such crowd-pleasers as last year's Grammy-nominated digital-only single "Timebomb" just check the homemade video tributes on YouTube for some Gallic-inspired megarelease to come?
I doubt it. Modern Guilt is far from giddily upbeat. It's no Midnite Vultures (DGC, 1999), the larkiest Beck has ever skewed, nor is it as self-consciously crafted as The Information (DGC, 2006). Instead it reads like the man who is in touch, as usual, with the moment one that would make Philip K. Dick's skin crawl. My favorite songs emerge when Beck plunges into a Mutations-ish darkness and Sea Changelike doom. Downed jet passengers drown amid viewer paranoia in the dreamy, Gainsbourgian "Chemtrails," which roils in a gorgeous funk, and the fatalistic "Volcano" turns out be one of the most beautiful, beautifully imperfect songs Beck's ever written.