MUSIC CRIT: BECK - MORNING PHASE
Reviewed by Kevin Salveson
Then the first ambum came out, Mellow Gold, in 1994, and it was full of interesting forays into sound collage, veering from screeching and explosive bursts of distortion to some real actual songs. And, again, the jokes were pretty good. If you can't be sincere, at least a cynical type of humor is a kind of saving grace for humanity. The album was not mellow, nor really all that golden, but it marked his territory as... everywhere, and everything. It was all blenderized, the same way that Jesus Jones's first album --which at the time broke some ground incorporating samples into rock song arrangements-- had a blender on the cover. (They they had a pop hit so big they were resented for it and then faded away). So he was gaining in credibility, even as I was shaking my head in resignation that he was going to blow up because everyone seemed to be so determined to help him blow up.
Turns out, he deserved it. Did those at the labels and the radio stations and the bars who came into contact with him sense that he was a savant of some kind, or that he was playing one for kicks? Could they have predictedthe future, and the fact that he would in fact make good on whatever promise his talent had made to all those promoters? Perhaps. Or, perhaps, if anyone is given unlimited resources to persue his muse, he will eventually, with a little talent, produce decent stuff with the help of all the other professionals you can hire.
And all the professionals were in on it. God, even Urban Outfitters was in on it, since as soon as something is cool the corporate minds want to use it to mass-market it. When that first album came out I remember walking along the Santa Monica Promenade and coming across the storefront of that now practically venerable retailer. And their whole front window was a tribute to Beck's first album. It wasn't corporate, though, They knew better. Rather, it was a kind of slapped together looking tribute to Beck wearing Star Wars gear and making fun of that iconography. So again, back then, the mode was ridicule and irony, even if deep down all Gen Xers have a soft spot in their hearts for the Lucas saga. But there it was: Urban Outfitters was going to take Beck out of the college radio ghetto and launch him into the stratosphere.
I then read an interview with him in a local zine, can't remember the name. What I did remember was that he was still in shtick-mode, so that every answer, just like his lyrics, were non-sequiters and jokes and references to cheese pop culture. That was pretty easy, though it also seemed a little like Dylan. He was a cipher who regurgitated what you fed him and in that way he told you something about the culture even if wasn't consciously doing it on purpose. And what Beck told us was that the culture was washed out, buried in its own cess, and like Logan's Run, there was no Sanctuary you could ever make it out of the maze to reach. Beck was still trying his best to maintain the "indie cred" of not caring, insulting the audience, and sabotageing his career with avant-guarde kind of antics onstage, etc. (And yet, such obscurity in the face of the creeping commercial success of Loser was in fact an artistic concept that --while as an audience member I would have probably bad-mouthed-- had some merit and humor.) So within all that insincerity and meta-post-modern kitsch was in fact a lurking a sincerity, one that maintained its integrity by attempting to turn it into an avant-guarde spectacle which would put into question the whole singer-album-tour-audience paradigm.
Then, the year that Mellow Gold first came out, I went to China. When cynical jokes were not enough (and after my own band had only middling success) my solution to the disgust with everything American, commercial and fast food in America which I had grown up with was to leave the country and form a band with some Chinese rock and rollers who did not have to wade through several layers of irony before they could sing their songs.
I returned in 1996. And that was exactly the time Beck was putting out his second record, Odelay. (well, he had also released a lot of pretty unlistenable indie stuff like Steropathic Soulmanure, but while there might have been some decent songs somewhere in there the work required to wade through his toss-offs and joke songs was too much for me).
Odelay was his first real triumph, even if he had to hire the Dust Brothers to give it to him. All of his wayward tendancies and out there mashups suddenly coalesced behind solid beats and some reverb. The lyrics were still mostly non-sequitors (a Devil's Haircut goes on your head, ok sweetie? That's where it belongs) , but the hip hop and the blasts of fuzz and the arrangements with saxes were great. And he crossed over and got a much bigger hit out of it. But he was still reportedly uncomfortable with success.
When I came back from China I got a job at The Hollywood Reporter. I bring this up because once I was having lunch in Chinatown with the music editor of the paper at the time and we started talking about Beck. He said, "One thing about Beck, he just doesn't give a fuck." Which was true, that was a source of much of his power. But then it hit me, and I said, "But what if he did give a fuck? Would he be even better?"
And then he started giving a fuck. And he did get better. I think Mutations and the single "Deadweight" convinced me. He had started producing himself. and the little guiro percussion and verb sound was just right on that single. Suddenly, he was talking normal in interviews, not giving stoney spacey answers.
Just like Generation X, which after perhaps the death of Kurt Cobain realized that all that hate of the commercial world could end in abnegation. If things were so fucked up, wallowing in it wasn't going to help. It was a dead-end. All the DJs got work at the radio stations. All the club kids grew up and now work for Google. And in a way that is a good thing. It's called maturity. Instead of shirking off the responsibility to make the world a better place, why not actually try.
So, today, we live in a post-irony world where mature people realize that to do good work can be better than not. Hansen even cast off his hip-hop ragamiffin shtick and went full-on folkie. He released the masterful Sea Change, which successfully updated the American new folk sound with delays, reverbs and modern production. The lyrics turned instrospective, decipherable, and sometimes even sincere. He fell in and out of love, and got in a car accident, went on with his life, perhaps became a scientologist or whatever. His personal life aside, however, what is important is that his songwriting got better.
On this new album, Morning Phase, which is fairly comparable to Sea Change, many of the songs feature accoustic guitar, flat snare and kick sounds, and then a lot of layered vocals. Well, I do love me some layered vocals, especially when they move in and out of the main mode or scale of the song. For example, on Morning Phase the chorus remains in the main scale yet there is a counter-harmony which is moving into the minor scale behind it all. That "detour" from what the ear expects to hear is wonderul when it comes sailing in on five overdubbed voices and a chiorish repeating delay supplying the atmosphere upon which it all floats.
So that's it. Just like the best of Generation X, Beck went from a defensive kind of irony as his default response to actually being sincere and caring to make a good song as good as it can be. Does caring sometimes put you at risk emotionally? Sure. But it is a lot more healthy and mature than a life spent rejecting everything, not taking anything seriously, hiding out and killing time, abdicating on your responsibility as just one link in the long chain of humanity...like a Hikikomori.