It was the most intensive work I’ve ever done on anything,” Beck says the day after finishing his new record, sounding slightly dazed. For his 10th studio disc, Beck worked with Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse – who’s overcommitted as both a producer and a member of Gnarls Barkley, which just released a record of their own. “It was like trying to fit two years of songwriting into two and a half months,” Beck says. “I know I did at least 10 weeks with no days off, until four or five in the morning every night.”
Burton remembers Beck’s stamina during their late-night sessions: “He’s like a machine. I always got tired before he did. I stayed pretty late, but I’d usually hear the next day how late it went.” The resulting album, tentatively titled Modern Guilt, is full of off-kilter rhythms and left-field breakdowns, with an overall 1960s British vibe. Beck’s vocals float over the music as if he’s singing along to some mystical radio station in the next room. The title track has the groove of a good Zombies single, while the twangy guitar and uptempo beat of “Beggars Shoes” make it sound like Beck’s cruising at maximum speed down Route 66. The lyrics include lines about the ice caps melting down (and “the transistor sound”), but there were many earlier versions. “I can’t tell you how many times I wrote and recorded a complete song,” Beck says, “and then just took everything away but the drumbeat and wrote a whole new song.”
Beck and Danger Mouse knew each other casually before making the record – some of Beck’s former musicians ended up playing with Gnarls Barkley – but they were both surprised at how naturally they worked together. “It felt like we could have been making our fourth record together,” Beck says. “It did help that we share a lot of musical references. We spent the first week just talking about different records. His knowledge is pretty deep, especially with some of the obscure late-Sixties, early-Seventies rock.”
The original vision for Modern Guilt was 10 short tracks. “I was hoping all the songs would be two minutes long,” Beck says, “but then I got rid of all the short songs.” Each song started with Beck playing acoustic guitar over a drumbeat: If it made the cut, they’d flesh out the music, usually with Burton playing keyboard bass and Beck playing most of the other instruments. There were just a few guests: Joey Waronker added drums to the epic “Chem Trails,” which would have fit in nicely on an early Pink Floyd record. And Cat Power‘s Chan Marshall added backing vocals to a few tracks, including the melancholy “Walls,” which includes the lyric “Some days are worse than you can imagine.”
Modern Guilt doesn’t have an official release date yet, but sources close to Beck say that he’s likely to rush it out in June, much like the recent blitzkrieg of releases from Gnarls Barkley and the Raconteurs. For Beck, always eager to shake up music-industry practices, the disc marks the end of his major-label contract. “I’ve had this deal since my early 20s,” says Beck, 37. “I don’t have any plans at the moment. It’s anybody’s guess where things are going week to week with the music business.”
This story is from the May 29th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.