BECK: MIDNITE VULTURES (1999)
1) Sexx Laws; 2) Nicotine & Gravy; 3) Mixed Bizness; 4) Get Real Paid; 5) Hollywood Freaks; 6) Peaches And Cream; 7) Broken Train; 8) Milk And Honey; 9) Beautiful Way; 10) Pressure Zone; 11) Debra.
With the dark brooding of Mutations out of the way, it's back to swing time again. A spin of the wheel, and Nigel Godrich disappears in smoke — don't worry, he will be back — as The Dust Brothers make a triumphant re-entry. This time, Beck's ambition is to make the party album to outparty all the other party albums. The samples are back, in a modest way, but for the most part, it's all about the beats, the hooks, and the arrogant, cynical, super-cool party spirit: Midnite Vultures is flashy, hot, and ultimately meaningless — but, like the best of those party albums, it's got enough witty, funny cynicism to it so as not to repulse the demanding listener.
Pretty much every song on here is fun in one way or another. They may not be deeply impressive (few «party albums» are deeply impressive in the first place, for obvious reasons), but Beck is not aiming for that — he claims to have perfectly mastered the art of, let's call it, «expensive cheap thrills», puncturing the listener's senses on a primal level without offending the brain. It's all a bunch of musical sexual acts, but, as he states himself on the very first track, "I want to defy the logic of all sex laws — let the handcuffs slip off your wrists". Midnite Vultures does have its logic, but it is its own logic indeed, not anybody else's.
I honestly have no idea of how many elements on the album come from Beck's own head, and how many have been taken from other places (but still reshuffled and re-glued in Beck's own head all the same). Direct influences that everyone mentions range from Prince to Grandmaster Flash to David Bowie to Kraftwerk to the Velvet Underground, and that is not mentioning minor touches like echoes of Elton John on the coda of ʽDebraʼ, or the occasional Beatlisms, or the occasional country touch here and there. In addition, some of the songs show that Beck had developed a fairly impressive falsetto technique — and that, whenever he sings falsetto, he sounds eerily similar to Mick Jagger (just compare ʽDebraʼ with, let's say, ʽWorried About Youʼ). But none of that is ever a problem, because the important thing is to know how to steal, what to steal, and when to steal, and if Odelay could still be accused of an occasional abuse of power here and there, Midnite Vultures is a perfectly woven tapestry. If anything, one could perhaps shed a lonely tear for the pre-war blues strain — hopelessly lost in the fray this time. But at least the word "garbage" is still prominently featured in the lyrics (ʽPeaches And Creamʼ forms a delicious rhyme with "you make a garbage man steam", don't you think?).
On a song-by-song level, there are no highlights or lowlights, but, on a whim, I would particularly mention ʽMixed Biznessʼ as the «the shit» element of the album — certainly this sort of groove, democratically generated by guitars, brass, and vocals jumping from speaker to speaker, is as good as anything Prince ever had to offer, not to mention just as «mock-dangerous» ("I'm mixing business with leather", Beck tells us from the outset, even though the music itself contains no hints at a BDSM attitude — cybersex, perhaps, given the huge amount of electronic bleeps, but nothing that would suggest any glorification of physical pain). Then again, ʽGet Real Paidʼ might be even more fun — an almost completely electronic brouhaha that might sound like a dialog between two androgynous robots in heat at first ("Teletubbies going electric", Beck used to say himself), before you understand that the lyrics are also poking fun at la dolce vita à la 1990s ("we like to ride on executive planes, we like to sit around and get real paid").
As the album moves on, though, the tracks get a little less beat-oriented and become ever more interesting in terms of melody and musical effects — for instance, the insane slides and bends on ʽPeaches And Creamʼ that make the song seem like Animal Farm Gone Berserk; or the psychedelic vocal modulation ("we're out of controo-ool...") on ʽBroken Trainʼ, once again reviving the spirit of 1966; or the entirety of ʽBeautiful Wayʼ, reportedly inspired by The Velvet Underground and certainly consistent with the spirit of Loaded — slow-moving, steady, the only track on the album that moves away from head-spinning electrofunk, trip-hop, etc., but am I ever glad it's there even despite not fitting into the general atmosphere.
By the time we get to the «sentimental» coda of ʽDebraʼ, Vultures have already been long since balancing on the edge of parody, but ʽDebraʼ is probably the only time on the album where Beck officially makes that move — the absurdly exaggerated falsetto, the lyrics ("I met you at JC Penny, I think your nametag said Jenny..."), the exuberant brass arrangement, always happy to oblige with a mock-build-up, all of it reads like a final gesture: «Oh, by the way, if any of you here were going to take any of this stuff seriously, here's a final firm reminder to drop it». But as a good-natured parody on classic soul material, ʽDebraʼ is hilarious anyway, and a memorable and atmospheric conclusion, carefully wrapping up a non-stop-rave experience with some sit-back-and-relax laughter.
Of all of Beck's major label records, Midnite Vultures is probably the most «trashy», but even its title forewarns you of that — what else is to be expected from an album about «vultures»? For the most part, it's all about form, not substance, but this here is Beck at the peak of his «formal» abilities, so much so that the songs, despite being so steeply soaked in late-1990s technologies, sound as exciting and baffling in the next millennium. They really do make a garbage man steam, not to mention, more prosaically, thumbs up all the way.
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