BECK: MODERN GUILT (2008)
1) Orphans; 2) Gamma Ray; 3) Chemtrails; 4) Modern Guilt; 5) Youthless; 6) Walls; 7) Replica; 8) Soul Of A Man; 9) Profanity Prayers; 10) Volcano.
Well, even the best of us eventually get themselves cornered. After Midnite Vultures and Sea Change, Beck had nothing left to prove; after Guero and The Information, he had nothing left to recombine and resynthesize. It does not seem too surprising to me that, once Modern Guilt came out, he took his lengthiest break from new solo projects so far — five years without a fresh Beck album is definitely not something that the man's fans were looking up to. But the man is smart, and knows when to give himself a much-deserved break, letting that heavily exploited soil rest in peace and restore its nutrient potential.
Modern Guilt is quite short; not at all flashy or «assuming»; and basically gives us a faint picture of a guy at a crossroads. I mean, what else would it be, if the very first line of the very first song goes "think I'm stranded but I don't know where"? If there is at all an overriding point to this record, it is simple enough — been there, done that, now what? Then this message just keeps on going: "modern guilt, I'm stranded with nothing" (title track), "beat my bones against the wall, staring down an empty hall" (ʽSoul Of A Manʼ), "been walking on these streets so long, I don't know where they're gonna lead anymore" (ʽVolcanoʼ). Nor is this dead-end problem limited to the singer alone: "down by the sea, swallowed by evil, we've already drowned" (ʽChemtrailsʼ), "there's a bottomless pit that we've been climbing from" (ʽYouthlessʼ), "what are you gonna do when those walls are falling down on you?" (ʽWallsʼ), and the list is only just beginning.
The music itself isn't quite as gloomy as the lyrical message, even if most of it is in minor keys. For variety's sake, the album was produced by Danger Mouse, instead of one of Beck's regulars, and so it neither has the kaleidoscopic urban fuss of the Dust Brothers, nor the strange cosmic vibe of Godrich. Instead, it is cast very much in a mid-Sixties art-pop style, which had always been one of Beck's favorites, but he generally used to bury those influences way deep under a coating of techno beats and synth loops. Here, only a few tracks (ʽYouthlessʼ, ʽReplicaʼ) are dominated by modernistic percussion — most, with just a few tricks of the trade, would have fit in perfectly on old school garage-pop albums, or Pink Floyd ones.
Which is also the root of the problem: when Beck gets «stripped down», his retro-melodies are nice enough to the ear, but do not seem to be infused with just enough melodic genius to «matter» all by themselves, without the helping hand of a master producer, and Danger Mouse is either not able or not willing to provide that helping hand: his style of work, from what I have heard on the other albums produced by him, is to leave it to the artist — and Beck is exactly the kind of artist that should not be left alone in the studio at all, and definitely not left alone when he wishes to issue a serious statement about how all of us are going to a place that is far more dull and boring than hell or purgatory could ever hope to be.
While the album is on, it's really on, though. ʽOrphansʼ has just a light, sweet touch of the baroque, and of the psycho-mystical (somehow, I don't know how, the start of the "if I wake up and see my maker coming..." chorus, simple as it is, manages to trigger that mode). The orchestrated «chamber-music-hall» coda to the title track gives a good shot of romantic melancholia, ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ-style. The flute-and-fiddle dialog on ʽWallsʼ gives another, but different, shot of the same — and maybe it does make sense that the emotion of the song is not blown all the way up to high heaven, as some other guys singing about walls have been known to treat the subject. The harder-rocking stuff gives you some nifty basslines (ʽSoul Of A Manʼ) or fuzzy guitar riffs (ʽProfanity Prayersʼ), and the keyboards/strings combo of ʽChemtrailsʼ is quality tripping material. Honestly, I cannot find any filler here (and with the album's total running length of 33 minutes, I'd be really surprised to).
Compared, however, to the majority of Beck's major label albums, the songs on Modern Guilt have less staying power — the grooves, the hooks, the moods are too, shall we say, «restrained», and additional listens do not show much additional depth to them (as it happened, in my experience, with Sea Change, where each re-run of the tracks brought to mind at least several other minor wonders of Godrich's imagination). And, most important of all, you'd think that any album entitled Modern Guilt should leave you in the end... well, feeling a little guilty, perhaps? That is the kind of sentiment that an album like Arcade Fire's Funeral, if we are talking Beck's contemporaries, easily provokes in me, but this album, in comparison, feels lacking. Instead of making me want to go out there and help make the world a better place, it just makes me want to give the guy a hug and tell him to maybe eat more vitamins every once in a while. Oh, I guess that last sentence automatically translates to a thumbs up, anyway, but possibly this is not the correct type of thumbs up that Beck Hansen might want from a reviewer. Still, what the heck — this is another good Beck album, making it an almost record-breaking (for this period) nine positive ratings in a row, and let us not forget about that.
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