At this point, the one tedious thing about any Beck album is wading through swamps of hype before even hearing a guitar chord. And in the case of Modern Guilt, his tenth full-length and — at 33 minutes — his shortest ever, it’s laid on thick.
First came the announcement that our favorite changeling had hand-selected producer-du-jour Danger Mouse to helm the disc, and that the two of them had spent six months in L.A. trading old records like musical alchemists to prepare. Then came the sonic blueprint for the record — psychadelic sixties pop — and everyone got giddy over the fact that Beck and Danger Mouse, both arguably ahead of their time, were engaged in an effort to sound decidedly behind their time. After that, drop a few names for good measure — like Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) on backing vocals, or Beck’s own father handling the string arrangements — and all of the sudden a routine Beck CD is the Dark Knight of the indie music world. But after numerous spins, the byline on Modern Guilt is neither compliment nor criticism. Instead, it’s more like a blanket statement, and one that comes as no surprise given the mystical aura that’s surrounded Beck ever since he traded samples for Scientology: this record underscores the two great paradoxes of his career.
The first one, of course, is that Beck is the only modern artist who gets brownie points for revisiting his previous work. Normally, there’s a stigma attached to bands that don’t change their sound; this is why Nickelback is critically loathed, why Pink Floyd and Radiohead are seen as visionaries, and even why the Beatles are considered more prolific than the Rolling Stones despite playing together for thirty fewer years. But ever since he made 1996’s groundbreaking Odelay, which fused together everything from James Brown to Big Black, Beck has been tempting critics with claims that he’ll reinvent that very wheel. He never has, mind you, but 2005’s Guero came close enough to earn much higher marks than it deserved — while other records like Mutations and Sea Change strayed so far from the Odelay sessions that some critics were awed while others were put off. I’m in the former camp, so here’s some good news: Modern Guilt is about as far from Odelay as it gets. But there’s bad news too.
The bad comes, I guess, from the second paradox of Beck: his music sounds more like plagiarism when he’s not actually plagiarizing. When I said that Odelay contained elements of James Brown, I wasn’t kidding: Beck sampled the Godfather of Soul on that record, along with so many other songs that not one of Odelay‘s tracks was entirely unassisted by the open gamut of previously recorded music. Even incorporating those hundreds of samples, though, not one song off Odelay sounded copycat. Modern Guilt, by comparison, is written in full by Beck — but it doesn’t escape the pitfalls of being overly familiar, which makes this record feel more like a covers album than an original piece of art. Take the title track, where a staccato bass line is lifted directly from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and choral surf guitars are nicked from Cream. The song is menacingly bouncy, not unlike the Doors at their poppiest, but it ultimately sounds too close to being stolen for its own good.
A similiar problem plagues well over half this disc. “Youthless,” while wise to incorporate alternately ascending and decending keyboards, is a cheap rehashing of Beck songs like “Hell Yes” and “We Dance Alone”: one cool musical motif, in this case guttural guitar funk, with little invention atop it. “Soul of a Man,” meanwhile, veers into a guitar solo at the minute mark that’s suspiciously familiar to a line from the Black Keys’ “Breaks” — which wouldn’t be so bad if Danger Mouse hadn’t worked with the Keys less than three months ago. Even “Profanity Prayers,” marked by some as one of Modern Guilt‘s standouts, is the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” at twice the speed. Never before has Beck been so predictable.
Thankfully, there is a saving grace on this album — but it has nothing to do with its production. Actually, Danger Mouse comes up short on many occasions; when first single “Gamma Ray” breaks into eight bars of twangy guitar solo, for instance, a George Clinton-style bass line could have upped the aural ante by leagues. Similarly, Beck and DM’s reliance on sudden song endings quickly loses its shine: when six of ten songs stop abruptly in the middle of momentous times, the listener thinks less that it’s cool and more that it masks an inability to write actual song conclusions. Certainly a half-hour album could have incorporated a few more minutes of music without testing our patience — and relied much less on a whooping, saloonish snare drum that Danger Mouse peppers almost everywhere.
That saving grace, then, is a bound in maturity in Beck’s lyricism — particularly unexpected from the man who said in interviews that he was primarily concerned with Modern Guilt‘s sound, the same man who admitted to writing scratch lyrics (i.e., lyrics on the spot) for the majority of Odelay. Beck pulls off some gems throughout this disc, including a line from album closer “Volcano” that might as well be directed to his critics: “I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased,” he sings, taking a shot at modern hedonism. “But I still want to please you.” Elsewhere he’s a paranoid poetic, like on the excellent “Walls”: “You know that we’re better than that/But some days we’re worse than you can imagine.” Maybe a third paradox enters the equation here: as Beck focuses on how he sounds, he improves more so with what he says.
Truth be told, the lyrics aren’t the sole highlight on this album. A few tracks work extremely well: “Chemtrails” is tribal, acidic and funky at once; the aforementioned “Walls” uses sweeping synthesizers to accurately mimic the sound of collapsing walls; and “Gamma Ray” (see below) alternates between TV-theme guitar riffing and pudgy piano pop. But the best is far outweighed by the rest on Modern Guilt — and it’s hard to shake the feeling that if great minds like Danger Mouse and Beck do indeed think alike, perhaps they need to be kept apart to do so.