Ever since Beck Hansen released his landmark melding of hip-hop, rock and country with 1996’s Odelay, he’s been a man fitted for a narrative in which he’s never been a willing character. But instead of being written into a script designed by marketing teams seeking to make him a household name, he snatched away the pen and changed the story. In the process, he expanded the modern singer/songwriter’s job description more than any artist in the last 20 years.
A series of albums that didn’t make much sense from a commercial perspective
followed the iconic Odelay as Beck dabbled with Brazilian-tinged space folk (1998’s Mutations), absurdist soul-funk (1999’s Midnite Vultures) and broken-hearted chamber-pop ballads (2002’s Sea Change). For fickle fans and industry insiders alike, every Beck release has simply been delaying the inevitable follow-up to that million-selling breakthrough. With new album Guero, Beck has made the first step that makes sense. As for a narrative, it’s tempting to assume that the pressure to deliver the logical follow-up to Odelay has finally worn him down.
“Not really,” Beck says, taking a break between rehearsals for his Saturday Night Live performance to smash my hypothesis. “It’s not anything that I took on myself. They’re all just records, and I think Odelay was really successful here [in the U.S.], but Midnite Vultures was bigger in Europe. So it depends on who you’re talking to what would be the one to live up to,” he continues, knowing any talk of follow-ups is necessarily tied to market concerns. “Whatever that mentality is, I happened to hit some kind of mark. But there was never pressure on me. I’m just following more of an instinct about what I wanted to go out and play live and what I wanted to go into the studio and thought would be cool to put on a record. After Odelay, I was probably thinking of doing the opposite, to go from being the cut-it-up, sample guy to doing something completely live and do it in 14 days,” he says, referring to Mutations, the album that was so dissimilar to Odelay that Geffen refused to market it as the album’s follow-up.
For the last nine years, Beck hasn’t stopped to take credit for an album that represented a sea change in the way rockers approached music, as Odelay made computers and turntables safe for dudes with guitars. “I thought Radiohead inspired a lot of people in that way,” he says, changing the subject. “I do remember thinking with Mellow Gold and then Odelay that people’s reactions were kind of confused as to what we were doing. Some of those records were kicking around for years before they were released, so I sort of got an honest reaction that wasn’t based on what kind of success the records had. And I remember people being not really sure if it was real music or not,” he laughs, knowing just how unusual it is for an artist who broke through with an undeniable novelty hit (1994’s “Loser”) not only to survive his sophomore effort but to move millions of records in the process.
“In retrospect, I think that was a good thing,” he says of the bafflement with which his anti-folk and noise-rock constructions were received. “At the time, maybe it felt like we were wasting time and money and were childishly pursuing our own ideas and our own folly, and that was the feeling for me. If Odelay was going to be it, at least it would be kind of f---ed up, an interesting curiosity. It wouldn’t be the generic, trying-to-cash-in-on-the-right-sound-at-the-time kind of thing. It was funny at the time that people were buying it. I even forget all of the little interludes and half-formed ideas that we had thrown into it. But I don’t really know what other people take from it. I do know that I hear a lot of bad TV commercials that try to sound like [Odelay’s breakout hit] ‘Where It’s At.’ That pretty much turned me off from using the electric piano for a lot of years.”
Listening to Odelay today, it’s easy to re-experience that original bewilderment, as the album remains a gloriously noisy, disjointed affair, screeching electronics and creaking tape splices woven together into a surreal sonic patchwork. Stranger music never sold so well. If Guero is Beck’s sequel, it’s an entirely different animal, more cohesive, muscular and polished by far.
“Yeah … not polished,” he says, “but the experiments on there are incorporated into the songs instead of just tagged onto the end of the songs. Like, ‘Here’s a good jam. Let’s stick it at the end of this song!’” he laughs, recalling the Odelay sessions. “Another big difference to take into account is that at the time we recorded Odelay the technology had not evolved to the point that we could actually hear all of the tracks while we were making it. We didn’t actually know how the song sounded or what the transitions were like. Now ProTools and all that has evolved that you can pretty much hear everything, and it’s all instant. But back then it was kind of like working in the dark, so we actually didn’t know what the album sounded like until we went to a studio and put it on tape and mixed it.”
Though he seems far from comfortable declaring Guero as Odelay’s creative cousin, he admits they share more common ground than any of his albums. “It was pretty much the same,” he says of the seven-month recording process that birthed his eighth full-length. “The only difference is that it’s pretty much impossible to clear samples now. We had to stay away from samples as much as possible. The ones that we did use were just absolutely integral to the feeling or rhythm of the song. But, back then, it was basically me writing chord changes and melodies and stuff, and then endless records being scratched and little sounds coming off the turntable. Now it’s prohibitively difficult and expensive to justify your one weird little horn blare that happens for half of a second one time in a song and makes you give away 70 percent of the song and $50,000,” he laughs. “That’s where sampling has gone, and that’s why hip-hop sounds the way it does now.”
Legalities aside, while Beck’s approach to melody and arrangement has changed little since he unwittingly became the symbol for the slacker ’90s with his non-sequitur rhymes on “Loser,” his songwriting now is more literal and concrete. Whether it’s his marriage and family life, or simply the maturation of his artistry, largely gone are the unusual junk-culture references, Satanic-taco obsessions and stoner epics that marked his eccentric early recordings. Still, he bristles a bit when I suggest his writing is becoming more conventional and less surreal.
“Surreal? Maybe …,” he says, sounding somewhat offended. “Yeah, I mean, some of that’s dialed down a bit. I don’t think of surrealism; I think of metaphors. And it’s funny—if you write metaphorically or use imagery, it’s thought to be ‘psychedelic’ or ‘nonsense,’” he says, pushing out each of those words with breathy faux-derision. “But it’s not that lazy. There’s actually more to it. It’s just an aspect of how I write. I definitely try to convey something that translates and makes sense, but I will use images, too, where it might not be exactly clear what I was trying to say. At least you can just get the feeling. Even if you say something absolutely directly, words can’t convey exactly your exact state of mind or the feelings that you’re trying to articulate. Sometimes it takes a bunch of images or a little explosion of words to really convey that idea that maybe doesn’t exist in language. Some languages have words that have 40 or 50 letters in them. In German they have these words that create these compound concepts, and they have this kind of thing in the East, as well. I think messing with language is absolutely OK. And it’s valid,” he continues, as if accused of abusing his artistic license.
But just how much of the shaggy kid with the flaming acoustic guitar is left in the now-34-year-old auteur? The post-modern makeover he gave Harry Smith’s “old weird America” on albums like 1994’s One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathetic Soulmanure seems to echo little in the summery pop layers and electronic grooves of Guero. “I think that came from all the endless amounts of folk music and spirituals that I’ve listened to. That’s pretty much what those songs are about. Wrecks and murders and hangings and carnage,” he snickers, “these quaint little antiquated songs that are passed down from pre-recorded music times. But, yeah, I definitely still have that. It’s there. For me, it’s the easiest thing to do. Sometimes it’s good to not use the thing that’s easy, though. Challenge yourself and give yourself room to grow. But I think that a lot of Midnite Vultures is pretty out-and-out farcical and wacky,” he says. “There are other ways to say things, too.”
Of course, there’s a lot of truth in that statement, and after pushing him on the point, I realize his wisdom in not following the narrative I would’ve created for him by hemming him in as the prime mover of freak-folk and sampledelica. After all, it’s that intrepid spirit and willingness to continually reinvent himself that’s made Beck arguably the most compelling artist of his generation. Still, despite his growing number of canonized works, talk of legacy still strikes him as premature.
“Ohh … it’s a little early to think about that,” he says, laughing. “Throwing those kind of words around, I think, is something that you really have to earn. I don’t think that it’s a given that people will be listening to my songs 30, 50 years from now. I mean, there are figures from the ’30s and the ’50s who were huger than any massive artist now that a lot of people don’t know. It’s fleeting. The songs are the only things that hang around. So if you manage to pull out a few decent ones, maybe those will be some kind of legacy. If you really want to have a legacy, you have to write “Happy Birthday,” something like that,” he says, causing me to laugh until I realize he’s serious. “Those are the kinds of songs that last forever. It’s not that what any of us are doing is in vain, we’re just part of the continual momentum. The momentum has to be maintained to push things forward, and every once in a while someone comes along and pushes it way forward in a short amount of time. I actually just look at it as being another shoulder, pushing the boulder up the hill.”
Having made a living by always taking the next illogical step, Beck is undeniably in control of his narrative, rewriting himself into a new persona on each page. As he approaches middle adulthood—a period typically marking a midlife crisis of artistic stagnation, even for prolific musicians like him—Beck appears to hold no fear of burning out. “No, not really,” he replies with typical matter-of-factness. “If you’re tired, take a nap.”