Welcome to Beck’s morning after. On the heels of Sea Change—his well-publicized dark night of the soul, a glowingly moody album yearning for sedative anodyne in the wake of an ugly break-up—Beck has to go out and, once more, face a world that has spiraled deep into his frayed nerves, gawked at his misfortune and appropriated his most personal musings for its own sundry purposes. (Ugly irony: how many couples have made out to this breakup album?) It’s an awkward spot, to say the least, much like facing a friend who bore sober witness to a night of drunken mewling when you were at your most desperate, or bumping into the next-door neighbor who probably heard every last slashing curse of your big fight on the phone. Blush and duck, boyo, your guts are showing.
To Beck’s credit, he didn’t retreat squarely to his pose-copping past in an effort to save face after such exposure. Rather, he calmly faced the task of squaring the stoned irony of Odelay’s culture-vulture raconteur and, more campily, Midnite Vultures, with the naked songcraft of his more recent work. The result is a deft stroke of career consolidation. In the same way that New Adventures in Hi-Fi found R.E.M. somehow seamlessly assimilating Monster with Automatic for the People, Beck’s latest is the unlikely yet startlingly cozy shotgun marriage of Sea Change and Odelay. Neither coy nor somber, it’s an album that just lays out the music without playing the angles.
Filled with beats that are insistent but not frenzied, tones that are trashy but not anarchistic, and humor that’s sly but not wanton, the latest finds a more mellow Beck churning back into the streets to explore new soundscapes. Witness “Scarecrow” with its unmistakable “Billie Jean” bassline, or “Go It Alone,” which transitions from a scuzzified bass groove to the glisten-twinkle of a Fender Rhodes piano in the space of minutes. While nothing here is quite so stripped as Mellow Gold, there’s a sense of conscious construction to these songs that—along with the return of Beck’s acoustic slide stylings—reaffirms that even the new orchestral Beck can still do pawn shop, albeit with newfound maturity. “Farewell Ride,” for instance, is a haunting, space-aged country-blues number—Leadbelly meets Spiritualized in a shudder of harmonica and mission-bell imagery—while “Nazarene” is a warped gospel that, although slightly misformed, resembles more of a hymn than a sketch with its relative earnestness.
Admittedly, the album is not without missteps. At times the tone gets a bit leaden, and although many of the songs feature tight beats screaming for wild remixes, there’s almost too much breathing room left unfilled by lyrics. On songs like “Hell Yes,” his repartee is slow on the draw, warbling out sub-par Beckisms like “make your dreams out of papier mache.” While the Dust Brothers’ reappearance looms large in the album’s collage of rhythmic tricks and fizzy effect work, the intensity level feels kicked-down a notch. Even on the “Devil’s Haircut” rewrite “Rental Car,” there’s no real sense of danger or flash of true mischief. Even at its funkiest, the album slides rather than struts, echoing the spilled-wine, stoned-Sunday vibe of War more than the juiced-up Saturday nights of its porny discotheque cousin Midnite Vultures. While there’s too much attention to detail to call this a lazy album, it consistently sounds less than fueled.
But, in the end, what redeems this album are the moments Beck’s strengths are fully realized. Like “Guero,” the funky barrio romp that would’ve been a standout on Odelay, and ranks among his all-time best. If the folks at Interscope are playing their cards right, “Guero” should be the homerun second single sometime this summer (after the sludgy modern-U2 “E-Pro” serves as a modest reminder that our boy is back in business). While “Guero” catches Beck at his most loose-limbed and syncretist, “Outerspace” sounds like an introspective holdover from Sea Change, thoughtfully bathed in anthemic piano and simmering slide guitar—an orchestral musing that resists dirgey-ness by dint of its gentle framing. Together, they sketch the limits of the light and shade heretofore missing from some of Beck’s more narrowly focused genre studies.
In his refreshing refusal to wave one flag or another too insistently, Beck manages to make the effort ring true. Across all its textures it always sounds like Beck. Better yet, it clarifies his depth and range as a musician; an unintentional time capsule anthologizing classic Beck with 13 new songs. While it lacks the churn or drama of his earlier work or the dour intensity of Sea Change, it’s an album remarkable in its consistent, pleasant above-averageness, punctuated by bursts of true genius.