Welcome to Beck's midlife spiritual crisis. As he nears his 40th birthday, his hair has grown as long as the Maharishi's. The BFFs on his MySpace Top Eight include Aristotle, father of metaphysics. And he's never addressed a higher power as directly as he does on his 10th album. Modern Guilt finds him questioning what the soul is made of, wondering if his prayers can be answered and generally putting himself through the karmic rehab required for understanding the Supreme Being. On the opener, "Orphans," he even imagines that, if God exists, he might be due for a visit. "If I wake up and see my maker coming," Beck sings, "with all of his crimson and his iron desire/We'll drag the streets with the baggage of longing/To be loved or destroyed/From a void to a grain of sand in your hand."
Co-produced by Danger Mouse, Modern Guilt indulges Beck's love of Sixties psychedelic music, and the results are vividly rendered — all acid-trip guitars, mod dance-party beats, daisy-chain harmonies and thundering percussion. But beneath the DayGlo arrangements lie some deeply bummed-out songs about living in a time of war ("Walls"), environmental degradation ("Gamma Ray") and widening generation gaps ("Youthless"). Danger Mouse brings a hip-hop DJ's love of funky old rock records; Beck brings the end-of-the-Sixties, pre-apocalyptic hangover.
Taken as a whole, the album's first five songs stand among Beck's strongest work. The most dazzling example is "Chemtrails," which nods through a heroin haze of droning guitars while Beck imagines jets flying above a sea full of dead people. The song title comes from a conspiracy theory that holds that some jet trails are actually chemical sprays engineered by the government for secret purposes. But you don't have to know the reference to feel the dread. Staring at the corpses, Beck sings, "So many people, where do they go?" The morbid answer is implied: No matter where all the lonely people come from, they all end up in the same place.
Still, there's a lot of life pulsing through Modern Guilt. With chugging guitars and a ponying rhythm, "Gamma Ray" seems custom-made for a go-go-dancing interlude in a James Bond movie. "Orphans" feels like the perfect ashram love-in, complete with flutes, acoustic strumming and Age of Aquarius harmonies courtesy of Cat Power's Chan Marshall. "Volcano" could be a lost outtake from Elliott Smith's XO, resurrected with a hip-hop drumbeat. And "Youthless" sounds like the funkiest disco-style robot-rock song ever performed on a cello.
Beck and Danger Mouse aren't afraid to follow their ideas all the way down the rabbit hole, even if no one else is particularly interested in what's on the other side. The swamp-blues exercise "Soul of a Man" is so maddeningly repetitive, it's almost hallucinogenic. And the world probably isn't ready for the drum-and- bass revival spearheaded on "Replica." (Too soon!) But some of the experiments that dare to fail big also feel the freshest: "Modern Guilt" reinvents the Doors' "People Are Strange" as a shuffling midtempo beatnik ballad — and, somehow, it works.
That last song sums up Beck's biggest issue on the album: "Don't know what I've done, but I feel ashamed." That's modern guilt for you: knowing the world's going to hell and feeling partly responsible, but not quite knowing what to do about it. "Some days, we're worse than you can imagine/And how am I supposed to live with that?" he sings on "Walls." A few lines later, he finds his own reason to carry on: "We do the best with the souls we're given." And not long after he sings these words, the song cuts out abruptly in the middle of the melody. Like Tony Soprano said, you never know when your time is gonna come.