If the short history of rock music is any indication, shapeshifting pop prisms like Beck nearly always hit an impasse midway through their varied careers. They either keep evolving with each stylistic about-face of an LP, a la PJ Harvey (ignoring Uh Huh Her), or they can lock themselves within the gleaming, freeze-framed amber that offers hazy reflections of their rainbowed past, as post-Hail to the Thief Radiohead has done.
Beck, most assuredly, has fallen into the latter camp, ceasing his aural innovations to become a craftsman, honing what he’s done before into a fine (if increasingly tired) sonic point. After the gorgeous misery of 2002’s Sea Change, the flea-market changeling has essentially released two best-of discs of traditional Beck noise: Guero (2005) and The Information (2006) were albums of new songs made of old sounds, something that was once Beck’s stock-in-trade as he made eccentric genre excursions and sample-driven collages of American pop-culture. Yet for the past six years his music has suffered from a massive narrowing of focus in which he samples only from himself, a brutal, high-altitude pressure shift that lurched his junk-drawer whiplash-pop from hipster inclusion to solipsistic prohibition.
And now, Modern Guilt.
After two aimless and increasingly dark Odelay sequels, our hero has returned with an acid-tinged tenth album that detours into ’60s Brit-pop and psychedelia, a lean 30-minute LP with none of the fatty musical deadweight that anchored the overlong Information. Produced by Danger Mouse, the album’s ten songs punch past in a breathless blur of kitchen-sink grooves and stungun guitars (most especially on “Gamma Ray,” a twisted funhouse mirror of surf-pop), blending the producer’s predilection for oldies production with Beck’s bent for pastiche.
While Beck’s mid-life navel gazing has only deepened and expanded like an iris in shadows, with songs like the Mutations mutation of narcoleptic tropicalia, “Chemtrails,” weaving post-9/11 paranoia into a hypnotic, synth-drugged ambience, the album’s taut, hyperactive production and brief running time keep it from spinning into the old pollution. Even further, after the rhythmic melancholy of closer “Volcano” fades away, it begins to sound as if Beck has finally begun to bridge his increasing maturity with the freewheeling brilliance of his younger records. Modern Guilt doesn’t quite make it to that flashpoint, but it certainly points the way to a musical future brighter than the endless, mirrored hall of “Devils Haircut” rewrites that songs like “E-Pro” suggested was coming. And that is a sea change worth waiting for.