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Beck's 'Modern Guilt': Downbeat, but Catchy

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

As a songwriter, Beck Hansen is something like an abstract expressionist. Over a 16-year recording career, this grandson of Fluxus artist Al Hansen (and the son of Andy Warhol protege Bibbe Hansen) has earned notice -- and more than a few head scratches -- for his output of elliptical songs, whose random lyrics are often cryptic to the point of indecipherability.

On his morose new album, "Modern Guilt," the musician known simply as Beck isn't exactly spinning linear narratives. But he does manage to make this much clear: He's not in the happiest of places right now.

"I think I'm stranded, but I don't know where," he declares on the woozy, jangly album opener, "Orphans." As the song unfolds, Beck, who turns 38 today, sings of apocalypse, adding, "We're just orphans in a tidal wave's wake."

On "Modern Guilt," Beck sounds disillusioned, paranoid, bereft and seriously bummed, with an emphasis on serious. Whereas he was once known for leavening his heaviest, darkest lyrics with humor and moments of absurdity, Beck's funny bone apparently remains broken six years after he first suffered the injury while writing and recording the beautifully gloomy breakup album "Sea Change."

"Modern Guilt" isn't a relationship album, though; it's a brief (34-minute) dystopian song cycle about a world "swallowed by evil," one in which "warheads are stacked in the kitchen" ("Walls"), conspiracy theorists are looking skyward ("Chemtrails"), we're on the verge of ecological disaster ("Gamma Ray") and personal paranoia is running rampant (the title track).

"Beat my bones against the wall/Staring down an empty hall/Deep down in a hollow log/Coming home like a letter bomb," Beck sings on "Soul of a Man."

This is the guy whose first single was "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack" and who once wrote a song called "Satan Gave Me a Taco"?

It all adds up to something ponderous, at least lyrically, making "Modern Guilt" a candidate for feel-bad album of the summer.

But musically, the album takes on a different tone altogether, as Beck teams with the producer Danger Mouse to craft a sunny soundscape that belies the gloomy lyrics. Oh, the dichotomy!

Danger Mouse is best known for his work with Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz, though his best work is 2004's "The Grey Album," a remix project that boldly matched an a cappella version of Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with music from the Beatles recording known as "The White Album."

Here, his work is far less adventurous and surprising, save for "Replica," an echoing drum 'n' bass song that represents the album's only true left turn. Otherwise, the music on "Modern Guilt" is a perfectly pleasant retro amalgamation of bright melodies, twitchy beats, trippy flourishes, funk grooves, harmonies from Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) and found sounds, including a scratchy hiss on the strutting title track.

"Gamma Ray," a musical highlight, rides a frisky surf-rock riff. "Soul of a Man" is a thumping, bluesy drone. First single "Chemtrails" is hazy, ethereal Brian Wilsonesque psych-pop.

It all suggests that both songwriter and producer spent quite a bit of time studying their "Nuggets" box sets. Someone also seems to have studied Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," whose cover design was an apparent inspiration for that on "Modern Guilt."

Hanging out on his desolation row, Beck ends his album with "Volcano," the album's only song whose production work seems to match his melancholy vocals. Over a loping hip-hop beat and minor guitar line, he drones: "I've been drinking all these tears so long/All I've got left/Is the taste of salt in my mouth."

Nothing abstract about it: The dude is disconsolate.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Volcano," "Gamma Ray," "Orphans"

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