Pop culture remembers the 1970s as one big party: a nonstop, funk-pumped round of bong hits and white lines snorted via $100 bills, a circuit of mirror-balled dance floors and water beds full of obliging strangers, pre-AIDS and post-Roe vs. Wade. Just forget the recession, the gasoline shortages, the hostage crisis and the hits by Styx, and, sure, it was all white bell-bottoms and macksploitation.
Beck Hansen, born in 1970, knows we’re too self-conscious now to party like it’s 1978. But on Midnite Vultures, his sixth album (counting indie releases), he takes a twisted time trip back to a decadent era that he was too young to enjoy fully. Clavinets chatter, analog synthesizers boop and slide, guitars wah-wah with horn sections talking back; songs hark back to silky soul and electrobubblegum. Beck doesn’t set out to re-create the 1970s, though. He’s playing to our current hindsight, distorted and hyperactive and more than a little envious of a time when pleasure didn’t automatically bring danger. “I want to defy the logic of all sex laws,” he sings in the opening song.
He has changed his strategy. On Mellow Gold and Odelay, Beck surveyed America from the rubble-strewn fringes, gazing from the outside at a culture whose center refused to hold, if it could be found at all. With hip-hop drum loops, folky guitars and a dizzying assortment of samples, he sang about collapse and confusion, about choking on splinters or trying to sell the scraps. Last year’s Mutations traded sampling for the sound of his band, stripping away some diversionary layers from his wistful images of decline and exhaustion.
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But with Midnite Vultures, Beck isn’t standing outside anymore. This time he plays the insider, riding the executive plane through the good life with every need fulfilled. “Satin sheets, tropical oils/Turn up the heat till the swimming pool boils,” he raps. He flaunts his California locale, whether he’s trying to seduce a girl at a mall near Glendale or hanging out with “Hollywood freaks on the Hollywood scene.” He’s especially busy putting the moves on the sweet young things, offering a ride on “the good ship menage a trois” and promising to “leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed.”
When Mutations was released, Beck said that his last album before the millennium would be “a party record with dumb sounds and dumb songs and dumb lyrics.” He was misleading about how dumb the songs are — they’re not — but the album is definitely party music. Many of the songs have relatives on Odelay; Midnite Vultures includes fuzz-toned riff songs, a deadpan rap, a tune built on plinking tuned percussion and a dreamy, swaying ballad. But on the new album, the arrangements are even more hilariously overstuffed, especially when Beck’s keyboardist, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., dispenses wordless wisecracks on instruments that whistle and sputter and blip. In the choruses of “Milk and Honey,” a multitracked army of Becks rides on hefty guitar and piano riffs, and every time he takes a breath, synthesizers go whizzing up, down and all around in a giddy rush that’s pure vertigo running through headphones.
As usual, Beck’s music is saturated with allusions. And while he hasn’t forgotten his hip-hop, this time he’s more steeped in the 1970s than ever. There are glimpses of bands from Kraftwerk to Kool and the Gang, from Roxy Music to Lipps Inc. More than once, Beck wanders into territory staked out by Prince, another musical forager, especially when he starts his falsetto enticements in “Peaches and Cream” and “Debra.” At times, the album verges on minstrelsy, particularly in the slack-jawed rap of “Hollywood Freaks.” But Beck has more on his mind than copying and pilfering; he’s a revisionist and a tinkerer, fascinated by what makes the music tick and determined to toy with its connotations. Besides, he doesn’t have the voice to be a full-time soulman.The production free-associates with the ear of a disc jockey. For all Beck lifts from the Seventies, the album never sounds like a period piece; there’s always something extra in the mix, stray elements that are both goofy and strangely apropos. “Sexx Laws” starts with the brash horn-section riffs of Stax-Volt soul, switches to funk with a turntablist’s reversed bass-drum beat, then tosses banjo picking and pedal steel guitar on top of the horns (in case anyone forgot that the 1970s were also the heyday of country rock).
For most of Midnite Vultures, Beck comes on as a conscience-free pickup artist. In the well-greased falsetto ballad “Debra,” he tries to hook up with a girl and her sister, saying, “Ain’t no use in wasting no time gettin’ to know each other.” Yet there’s no predicting where he stands; “Beautiful Way,” a shimmering ballad that glides free of its lounge trappings, sounds genuinely sympathetic as it watches a girlfriend slowly lose her mind.
Even when the music revels in the hedonism of “living in the garden of sleaze,” Beck can’t help glancing through the tinted windows to notice chaos beyond them. “I don’t wanna die tonight” he sings in “Nicotine and Gravy,” eyeballing a girl in what seems to be a Middle Eastern war zone, while “Out of Kontrol” details anarchy outside the privileged zone: bread lines, snipers in the bushes. “I’m glad I got my suit dry-cleaned before the riots started,” Beck sings, “sha la la la la.” Somebody, somewhere, ends up paying for the good life of the prosperous few. But not Beck, not this time.
This story is from the December 9th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.