Review Summary: Modern Guilt, Beck's first collaboration with producer Danger Mouse, simply sounds amazing with its eclectic list of influences and is one of his most, well, "fun" albums. However, at a brief 34 minutes, Modern Guilt seems to end too soon.
Fourteen years ago, a young hipster named Beck Hansen entered the music scene with his debut release, the odd and somewhat genre-hopping Mellow Gold.
Released in the height of what will likely be remembered as the "grunge-years" of music, Beck's debut album was met with mixed reviews, and many critics dismissed the album as having only one substantial song: "Loser." Despite "Loser's" being labeled as Beck's one-hit wonder, Beck answered the critics' warnings with 1996's Odelay!
, which was met with overwhelming success and solidified him as one of the music world's pioneers of alternative rock.
Now, in 2008, after two albums that were met with modest reviews, Beck seems to have reached his mid-life crisis with Modern Guilt
, released on his 38th birthday. The album's title gives away the major theme, telling us that this is Beck at his most paranoid and tense. A pulsing bassline introduces the album's opening track, "Orphans," and then a few seconds in a tinny, distant piano and a hauntingly eerie synth line bursts forward alongside some guitar. Beck sets the tone when he sings: "Think I'm stranded but I don't know where / I got this diamond but I don't know how to shine." The rest of the track continues in this format, with Beck's lyrics seeming to question his current state. Near the end, the song becomes almost jangly, with "Ahh"'s and "Ooh"'s floating around, making the listener sort of want to clap. It seems as if Danger Mouse and Beck have collaborated to create a sound that is paying homage to all sorts of sixties and seventies music.
The rest of the album continues to experiment with various genres. "Gamma Ray," the second track, sound like a mix of surf-rock and a theme that wouldn't be foreign in a James Bond film. The lyrics continue to convey a theme of paranoia, making references to the environmental condition and the melting of polar ice caps. "Chemtrails" sounds like a classic Beach Boys track, utilizing a gentle synthesizer line along with piano and smooth drumming. The lyrics, again, are dark, making references to conspiracy theories having to do with mass destruction. However, "Chemtrails" is one of the album's highlights, and one of the few songs breaking the 4-minute barrier. It is also the first single.
The title track begins with a jazzy drum beat that is reminiscent of early Beatles' tunes and then some minimalistic guitar enters with a ragtime-esque piano which dominates throughout the duration of the song. The lyrics support the theory that Beck is seeming to undergo a personal crisis, as he muses: "I feel uptight when I walk in the city / I feel so cold when I'm at home / Feel's like everything's starting to hit me," and continues with a catchy chorus: "Modern guilt, I'm staring at nothing / Modern guilt, I'm under lock and key." The track ends with some beautiful string compositions and then abruptly ends. Beck next takes us to a dark, funky tune called "Youthless," which is another album highlight. He sings in a deep tone among a raw sounding bassline and a series of computer bloops and bleeps and haunting synth lines.
"Replica" may be Modern Guilt
's lowest point. It is perhaps too experimental for the rest of the album's mood, and seems to be an attempt at drill 'n bass electronic music, like something from Aphex Twin's Richard D. James Album
. I almost instantly compared this song to "In Limbo," from Radiohead's Kid A
. But Beck doesn't let up, as we enter the last three songs, which do not disappoint.
"Soul of a Man," "Profanity Prayers," and "Volcano," the last three tracks on the album, make a comeback from the subdued and experimental "Replica." The first of the three instantly catches the listener with a hard-driving melody and bluesy rhythm. Where the album may have started to lag, "Soul of a Man" gets right back on track and is pure blues-rock. "Profanity Prayers" opens with some ambient sounds before exploding into the album's most straightforward rocker. It has a great beat and one of the album's catchiest choruses. Perhaps what makes the second-to-last track a standout is when things slow down for an awesome guitar solo backed by some smooth drums before returning to its rocking glory.
The last track begins with a mechanical sound which loops throughout the whole song. It vaguely reminds me of Radiohead's "Videotape." The lyrics to "Volcano" are, without a doubt, the most introspective and best lyrics found in Modern Guilt
. Here, the themes of the album all seem to culminate, and Beck captures the mood perfectly with his well-crafted lyrics. The album ends with Beck saying: "I don't know where I've been / But I know where I'm going / To that volcano / I don't want to fall in, though / So I want my bones on the firing line." This seems awfully cathartic and at the same time very cautious, especially for an artist known to take risks in crossing genre boundaries.
So the question is: does Danger Mouse's collaboration with Beck work and how does it stand up against Beck's other albums? To answer that question: yes, it does work, and it works very well. In a nutshell, Modern Guilt
feels like a gust of fresh air, and is one of Beck's best albums in a while. However, despite Danger Mouse's success in helping craft a wide array of psychedelic and alternative greatness that transcends his work with Gnarls Barkley and mashups like "The Grey Album," the album is too short, and feels a bit held back. Many songs felt like they could have been built upon a lot, and that leaves a feeling of disappointment in the listener's ears.
All around, though, Modern Guilt
is a great album, one of 2008's most enjoyable records. Sure, it doesn't have Viva La Vida
's wall of sound grandeur, nor does it have the new Sigur Ros album's musical beauty, but Beck's eighth studio effort does stand its own. Personally, I think Beck is on the right track, and he hints at something to come when he sings in "Volcano:" "I'm tired of people who only want to be pleased / But I still want to please you."