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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Beck: Mellow Gold

BECK: MELLOW GOLD (1994)

1) Loser; 2) Pay No Mind (Snoozer); 3) Fuckin With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock); 4) Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997; 5) Soul Suckin Jerk; 6) Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat); 7) Sweet Sunshine; 8) Beercan; 9) Steal My Body Home; 10) Nitemare Hippy Girl; 11) Mutherfuker; 12) Blackhole.

One theory that explains the surprising commercial success of Mellow Gold is simply that its attitude appealed so much to the new generation of slackers all over the US and worldwide, they went ahead and made it into their personal Bible of 1994. There is, however, a big hole in that theory — namely, where did all those slackers get the money to buy the album? Naturally, there are a hundred thousand different ways for a slacker to solve his financial problems, but then... would not being able to afford Mellow Gold really count as a genuine financial problem, in need of an immediate solution? Who knows, really.

There is another theory, though — one that also acknowledges the purely musical merits of Mel­low Gold, and states that Beck's meticulous fusion of the archaic and the contemporary, achieved here in a most understandable and accessible manner, was so unprecedented and intriguing that there was simply no way it could not transform the guy into the hottest new thing around town. Let's face it: even though, once we get to the bottom of it, country blues and hip-hop ultimately stem from pretty much the same source (lower class Afro-American layer, that is), it isn't every day that somebody proposes to knock 'em back together in a single package — all the more sur­prising that it took a hunk of «pseudo-white trash» to carry out that operation.

Allegedly, Beck himself was of no high opinion of ʽLoserʼ, which he only reluctantly submitted to release as a single — to him, this was a mediocre experiment like many others, maybe just a little more elaborate than the majority of his «stereopathetic soulmanure» products. But he was wrong — unlike most of these products, ʽLoserʼ had the golden touch for everybody. Critics loved the unholy union of slide guitars (roots!), sitars (psycho!), and hip-hop rhythms / vocals (modern cool!), and simple fans were awestruck with the chorus: "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?" was so poignant... and «sing-along-able»: readymade national anthem for a small army at least, or maybe, who knows, even a large one.

As ʽLoserʼ deservedly jump-started the process of turning Beck from street rat to major star, he must have warmed up to its nature — because, frankly speaking, ideology-wise most of Mellow Gold, his proper major label (Geffen) debut, sounds like variations on the same topic: combining elements of roots-rock music, psychedelia, and «modern street rhythmics» to form a soundtrack for losers, outcasts, and downshifters the world over. «Slacker music», come to think of it, is not a very good term — Beck himself has always hated it, rightfully pointing out that he was never a «slacker» as such. «Urban loser music» is more like it, although we would also need to throw in Beck's little fetish of mysophilia as well: few records have more mentions of toilets, manure, scum, puke, etc. per square inch than Mellow Gold allows itself in fourty-five minutes. Urban losers come in different sorts and sizes; Beck's version is a particularly smelly one.

Not that any of us should mind, since, on the whole, Mellow Gold's basic intention is never one of grossing you out — that can happen, sometimes, as an unintentional, or desirable, side effect, like it does in Pulp Fiction (to which Mellow Gold, from certain angles, relates like its musical twin from the same year), but above everything else, it is a musically interesting construction, stylistically uniform and variegated at the same time. Hip-hop rhythms, rapping, and sampling frequently make part of it, but they do not lie in the foundation — which is strictly occupied with chord sequences learned, borrowed, or based on Beck's knowledge of the rustic tradition; so, in a way, he is doing here much the same thing as Dylan was doing back in 1965, rebooting the old franchise in a manner fit for the moods and airs of thirty years forward.

In terms of immediate memorability, it is the loud, obnoxious numbers that steal the show — ʽLoserʼ is an impeccable opener, but then there is also ʽSoul Suckin' Jerkʼ (continuing with the analogy, "I ain't gonna work for no soul suckin' jerk, I'm gonna take it all back and I ain't sayin' jack" is the 1994 equivalent of "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more") — great combo of swampy acoustic guitar and harmonica with rudely distorted fuzz bass on that one; ʽSweet Sun­shineʼ, which fits its title very well if one interprets «sunshine» as «nuclear explosion flash» (the instrumental part is like a very bad, very perverse acid trip); and a new, improved, beefed up ver­sion of ʽMutherfukerʼ that now sounds very much like stoner rock with a screwdriver up its ass, as spontaneously as that simile is generated.

Then, over time, one also gets warmed to the quieter, subtler stuff — the «anti-depressed» (so called because they should be expected to sound depressing, but in reality sound like the singer has already transcended that silly, pesky emotion) acoustic ballads like ʽPay No Mindʼ, ʽNitemare Hippy Girlʼ, ʽWhiskeycloneʼ, or the solemn, quasi-Eastern album closer ʽBlackholeʼ. There is no compositional genius here, but the hooks and moods are quite efficient, without any traces of taking themselves too seriously or exercising any self-pity, but still aspiring to some importance. ʽBlackholeʼ, in particular, almost invites you to meditate to its rhythmic waves of guitars and strings, and then you realize that a large segment of the album is, indeed, meditative in nature, even some of the heavier numbers — because, after all, what is a sla... er, urban loser supposed to do other than just drift away into the depths of his subconscious and hope that he might find peace of mind is waiting there, to quote another famous «slacker»?

All in all, Mellow Gold is one of those records that do provoke different reactions depending on the number of times you have listened to them, the context in which you heard them, the mood in which you find yourself at the moment, and, of course, the ability to judge avantgarde artistic statements both on their own terms and on common grounds — good news for me is that I actu­ally happen to like the record not just because it is «weird» or «innovative», but because it shows a streak of very individualistic, very unusual wisdom. As a collection of great individual songs, it may not be Beck's finest hour; but as one of the most important cohesive albums of the decade, it just might be. At the very least, it more than deserves its exalted thumbs up.

Check "Mellow Gold" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Mellow Gold" (MP3) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. "all the more surprising that it took a hunk of «pseudo-white trash» to carry out that operation."
    Really? Remember where Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis came from? The big difference is that Beck is from a big city - but hadn't LA to do something with hip hop? That again shows how sociology influences music - the optimism of the 50's is completely gone.
    This is not meant to belittle Beck. My point is that somebody had to do it. It remains Beck's enormous merit that he was the one who actually did it.

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  2. Check out Beck Hansen's background (esp. his dad) for where all that love for genre fusion comes from.

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