I listened to Beck's new CD on my commute yesterday, and it struck me that it is the perfect place for him. Beck is the poet laureate of the carpool lane, amplifying the musings that occur on the perpetual journeys between mundane destinations. Much is made of his funkiness, usually just short of expressing the alarming "blackness" of such a skinny white kid. I think the claim is a bit stretched - Beck is less about mining black music Elvis-stylee than his is about walking the top rim of a mountain chain of pop music that has black music at its core, injecting outcroppings of soul into modern soullessness. Producer Danger Mouse is a perfect travelling companion for this trip, given that he's made his name from conflagrating the cool and the uncool. Together, they gyrate and bunny-hop from 1968 to 1988 to 2008, perhaps taking cues from the impressive collection of vintage shirts I would guess both these post hipsters have in their walk-in's, pulsing away from my shot Corolla speakers as I stare at the brake lights and concrete and clay beneath my wheels. In our cars, we allow ourselves momentary transformation through music that we do not afford ourselves otherwise. We will sing along off-key at high volume with abandon, in muted full view of those all around us. We will excite the air with our sounds as we pass while our endpoints of work and home are often bookended in silence. In our cars, as Gary Numan said, we are safest of all.
Modern guilt, I'm
staring at nothing
Modern guilt, I'm under lock and key
It's not what I have changed,
Turning into convention
Don't know what I've done but I feel ashamed
Beck is excellent at giving soul and funk and other back-channel music a forum for wide acceptability, taking the idea of the DJ and exploding it to that of the full artist, as well he should; it's in his blood. His grandpa Al Hansen was a key member of the Fluxus art movement whose concerns pointed at removing art from its ivory tower through a series of serious games, a parade of flat jokes. Al's forte was re-creating the same Venusian silhouette of a woman in varying materials: cigarettes, Hersey bar wrappers, discarded stickers. While is it rather simplistic to say this categorically, Beck is in many ways his grandpa's grandson. Over the years, Beck has created a formula that has become as familiar as our daily commute, travelling through the same neighborhoods we never actually visit over and over again, letting snippets infuse our own continuum.
He hit his high mark on the deservedly praised 1996 album Odelay which just saw a lavish reissue package. His follows up in '98, Mutations is just as good from a songwriting perspective, maybe even better in some spots, but the party from Odelay had already started to wind down. In keeping with our commute analogy, we were approaching our exit, and the succession of complex surface-road turns we have committed to muscle memory reflect how I feel about Midnite Vultures, Guero and The Information, with his sad-sack folky diversion Sea Change serving as that expression of panicked "what have I become" that happens on those days when the grind gets to you.
Nothing has particularly changed on Modern Guilt: it leaves the same house in the morning, takes the same route as always and arrives in the same exact parking spot, but somewhere of this trip, beck has taken stock of the trip and has come to some sort of epiphany. He has managed to transcend being a product of his process - the pileup of beats and styles and cultures behind him sound positively effortless now, the charming gibberish of having devil's haircuts in his mind and vapid look-at-me-ma-I'm hip-hoppin' exultation of his two turntables and single microphone have given way to Beck being a poet of his trip. He's finally expressing something real and palpable out of all this driving, wondering so many people, where do they go on "Chemtrails," seeing a face Into the mirror reflecting on the surface of fear in "Walls," empathizing with that Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano; Was she trying to make it back, back into the womb of the world? in "Volcano." Modern Guilt is no street party, but street parties are usually only fun for the first 20 minutes anyway. Modern Guilt is a sigh, both of resignation to the trials of life as we ascend the on ramp, and of relief when out exit comes into view.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com