Produced by Danger Mouse and Beck
Between his unpredictable album content and hush-hush ties to Scientology, it’s hard not to speculate about just what’s going on in Beck Hansen’s brain. His most recent opaque interviews leave out most details of his personal life, and so the truest glimpse we get of his personality comes direct from the records. Alternating between funky nonsense (Mellow Gold, Odelay, Midnite Vultures) and sonically rich emotion (particularly the Nigel Godrich-produced albums Mutations, Sea Change, and The Information), Beck proves adept at showing off his polar-opposite profiles, but never facing the world with his full-on façade.
But it seems the more obfuscated and media-shy Beck becomes, the more honest he gets, because Modern Guilt — appropriately released on the artist’s thirty-eighth birthday — may just be the truest self-portrait Beck’s given us.
From the album artwork — shadowy images of players’ feet backed by loose cables — to the vocals — shy falsettos buried under church-echo harmonies — Modern Guilt certainly doesn’t flaunt its openness. Danger Mouse’s work also seems to obstruct the emotion behind the songs; the chopped beats and erratic sounds come suspiciously and inappropriately close to Gnarls Barkley territory (“Walls” in particular bears a resemblance to St. Elsewhere track “Smiley Faces”). But beneath the production and between the lines of the lyrics lies a not only revealing but also revelatory record that leans towards paranoia, sadness, and discomfort.
This uneasiness is present throughout the album. “Modern guilt, I’m under lock and key / It’s not what I have changed / Turning into convention / Don’t know what I’ve done, but I feel ashamed,” Beck groans over the two-step rock of the titular track that sets the pace for the sound-word discrepancy of the album. Perfect summer single “Gamma Ray,” (which easily recalls the bass line of Le Tigre’s danceable “Deceptacon”) and likely chart candidate “Profanity Prayers” (a fun handclap number) offer up a great beachside soundtrack, but also contain a severe duality: Beck sings of “ice caps melting down“ on the former, and on the latter, “you wait at the light and watch for a sign that you’re breathing.” The eeriness continues with punchy, grooving “Youthless” (featuring Self’s Matt Mahaffey on bass), and the self-descriptive line “they tried to turn emotion into noise.”
The real standouts, however, come when Beck’s sound matches his meaning. Closing track “Volcano” has percussion just like the chugging of a freight train pulling away from a station. Beck’s low voice is mournful, slow and grounded as he tells of sorrow — both his and others. “I don’t know if I’m sane / But there’s a ghost in my heart / That’s trying to see in the dark / I’m tired of people / Who only want to be pleased / But I still want to please you / And I heard of that Japanese girl / Who jumped into the volcano / Was she trying to make it back / Back into the womb of the world?”
And in what just might be the song of the year, Beck releases any self-conscious irony and delves into a gorgeous, over-the-top number. That track is “Chemtrails,” notably different from the rest of the album because of Joey Waronker’s unrelenting, bone-chilling drum fills and Godrich-protégé Darrell Thorp’s three-dimensional, spooky mixing. The song is ostensibly about the chemtrail conspiracy theory, or the belief that trails appearing behind flying aircraft are actually government chemicals being released on humans for an unknown purpose. But Beck’s poetic lyrics are much more beautiful and complex than the namesake theory. In an honest and vulnerable falsetto (unlike the comical croon on Midnite Vultures track “Debra”) Beck delivers a frightening and captivating image: “I can’t believe what we’ve seen outside / You and me watching the jets go by / Down by the sea / So many people / They’ve already drowned” and “The chemtrails is where we belong / That’s where we’ll be when we die in the slipstream / We’ll climb in a hole in the sky.”
Though fans of Beck’s humorous side may be just as turned off as some die-hard Sea Change fans seeking a new breakup anthem, Modern Guilt puts the self-proclaimed Perdedor in a brand new role. He’s a whispering prophet who inspects his own life and the world around him through a magnifying glass with a storm-grey lens. It’s a new Beck, and it’s a Beck to watch in coming years — provided he doesn’t withdraw into the chemtrails completely.