Mellow Gold (Bong Load/DGC, 1994)
Stereopathetic Soulmanure (Flipside, 1994)
One Foot in the Grave (K, 1994)
Odelay (DGC, 1996)
Mutations (DGC, 1998)
Midnight Vultures (DGC, 1999)
Sea Change (DGC, 2002)
Guero (DGC, 2005)
The Information (DGC, 2006)
Modern Guilt (DGC, 2008)
Beck is the king of the Hanna-Barbera blues singers, a rock & roll dumpster diver trying to make folk music dangerous again by looting American culture for toys, whether they're acoustic guitars or drum machines or two turntables and a microphone. He became a Nineties rock star by making it all sound so easy, people fell for the idea he wasn't trying very hard—just an blonde L.A. surfer-poet boho with a guitar and a dazed grin, the happy-go-lucky Snoopy to Kurt Cobain's Charlie Brown. Although he's a folkie at heart, acoustic minimalism can't contain his more-is-more sensibility. Beck always sounds most himself when he piles on the star wars and other galactic funk.
Beck first blew up with the epochal 1994 hit "Loser," in which he skated to glory on a hot-wired Duane Allman guitar lick and a cheap beatbox. Like the rest of Mellow Gold, "Loser" sounded brilliantly disposable at the time, which was part of the fun. But the musical imagination and emotional resonance of Mellow Gold hold up long after the surprise wears off. It's a nonstop gas, collecting the best of his homemade recordings: the scruffy valentine "Nitemare Hippy Girl," the psychedelic death trip "Steal My Body Home," the hip-hop goof "Beercan," the scam-artist tearjerker "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)." Mellow Gold was nothing short of miraculous: Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home as choreographed by Sid and Marty Kroft.
Having fluked into a major-label hit, Beck defied all commercial logic by releasing two more albums that same year, both on indie punk labels. He earned some cred with the acoustic folk blues of One Foot in the Grave, which was sincere but dull: too much Sigmund, not enough Sea Monsters. Stereopathetic Soulmanure collected random home-taping junk from 1988 to 1994, from the cathartic punk of "Tasergun" and "Pink Noise (Rock Me Amadeus)" to the gorgeous Deadhead country of "Modesto." Even at this formative stage, Beck proved himself the kind of folkie who can ride boxcars with Depression-era hoboes in "Waitin' for a Train" and then give props to "Ozzy." He sings with giddy abandon whether he's indulging in elaborate Guthrie-esque tropes ("Plastic donut can of Spam/There's no kindness in this land") or just letting it all hang out ("So what/I lost my job at the Hut/My ass got cut").
But Beck really got crazy with the Cheez Whiz on Odelay, the smash hit that proved he could do it all. As the title suggests, it's his ode to L.A., mixing up his folk and rap and punk and hippie passions into cosmopolitan American slop, with help from his producers the Dust Brothers. Beck shimmies in and out of his musical guises, strumming acoustic guitar in "Ramshackle," rocking the Catskills hip-hop-style in "Where It's At," blaming it on the bossa nova in "Readymade," or murmuring his most beautiful ballad ever in "Jack-ass." It's a vision of an America of wide-open cultural frontiers—there's as much Babyface as Bob Dylan on this record, and as much Billy Ray Cyrus as Biz Markie. Odelay could have come off as a bloodless art project, but Beck gets lost in the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow until his playful energy makes everyone else sound tame. Put it together, it's a strange invitation.
Mutations slowed it down for an album of depressive ballads about locking yourself indoors and waiting to die, produced (too loudly) by Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame. While Mutations was sensitively fashioned, it was also incredibly boring, hitting duller-than-dog-breath lows by the third verse of practically every song, so the outright comedy record Midnite Vultures came as a relief. Fans of his serious side were appalled by gimmicky funk throwaways such as "Get Real Paid," "Hollywood Freaks," and "Mixed Bizness." ("She's mixing business with leather"—how the hell did Beck beat Prince to that one?) But for anyone who doesn't believe melancholy is inherently deeper than fun, Midnite Vultures is a hoot, especially the climactic slow jam "Debra," where he picks up a lucky lady in his Hyundai to take her for a real good meal.
Sea Change was a return to acoustic shoegazing, with gorgeous, downbeat reflections on a broken relationship, brooding in the style of Nick Drake and Serge Gainsbourg. But this time Beck came up with the first-rate melodies he left out of Mutations, and the emotion of the music was no joke at all. All over Sea Change he sounded like the same open-eared, warily ironic busker who recorded Mellow Gold—except eight years after "Loser," he sounded like he knew how it feels to actually lose something worth keeping.
Guero introduced the new midlife Beck we'll probably be hearing from now on—an apparently bummed-out adult with no particular sense of humor, all the playful youth smoked from his voice, revealing nothing of what's inside his brain besides his ever-restless musicality. He reteamed with the Dust Brothers for Guero, updating their Nineties genre-hopping style for the stun-gun guitar rocker "E-Pro" and the morose bossa-nova ballad "Missing." The Information (with Nigel Godrich) and Modern Guilt (with Danger Mouse) were similarly clever but somewhat dry, most emotionally credible when he's indulging his misery-goat side. In 2009 Beck began his Record Club project, gathering famous friends to remake famous albums online, starting with The Velvet Underground And Nico, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Skip Spence's Oar.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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