There’s an old saying about guilt being counterproductive. Beck‘s new album, Modern Guilt (DGC Records), has paid no attention to this corollary.
With guiltless guile, Beck has turned out a 33-minute compilation of 10 songs that sound (for the most part) as if they were plucked from one of his many trunks of archival material. Not that this is a bad thing. Neil Young and countless others do it all the time. Because this is Beck’s last album for his current label may give some clue to his song choices.
Modern Guilt is pleasantly dark, enjoyable, ethereal and a small wonder. The lyrics are at times accessible and at times equally obscure, like the Dadaist phrasing in “Orphans” — “To be loved or destroyed/from a void to a grain of sand in your hand.”
Some of the tunes on the record end abruptly, just enough to make you wonder if the CD has a glitch (one of the many technical bits of fun on the album). Not that Beck is holding back creatively, but the tone of the record seems to be one of finality. Many of the songs confront the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence. In “Profanity Prayers,” he sings, “You stare into space to discern what to say now/and you wait at the light and watch for a sign that you’re breathing.” In “Soul of a Man,” he asks, “What makes the soul/the soul of a man?”
His songs are filled with existential longings (“I want to know what I’ve lost today,” from “Gamma Rays,” and “I think I’m stranded but I don’t know where,” from the opener “Orphans”), as well as dreaded epiphanies and dark observations (“down by the sea swallowed by evil/we’ve already drowned,” from “Chemtrails”).
The highlights on the disc are “Youthless” and the final track, “Volcano.” These songs are about struggle and perseverance and the lyrics speak of regaining something lost or out of reach. “Shake your seasick legs around,” the narrator of “Youthless” intones, “trying to reanimate something that you can’t understand.” The traveler in “Volcano” is going to the fire pit, but not to jump in, just to “warm my bones,” and perhaps revive his motivation for living.
Beck remains locked into his craft, his imagination bringing a burning light to his obsessions (love, guilt, death, and global concerns), and his dedication to his muse makes it almost impossible for him to make a bad album. Not to say that Modern Guilt is a classic: It’s no Odelay or Sea Change, but it does contain some potential singles in “Orphans” and “Chemtrails.”
Beck’s choices of producer and backing musicians have always been eclectic. Among the contributors on this album are Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) on vocals and bass, Joey Waronker on drums and Jason Falkner on bass and guitar. The most incongruous choice here is having Danger Mouse of the duo Gnarls Barkley as co-producer and collaborator, but the marriage appears to be successful.
Beck still is an esoteric indie-minded rocker at heart, and Modern Guilt — in spite of the brevity of its length — stands as a fine addition to his catalog.
— By Donald Gavron