What happened to Beck? 

by Ayden Schultz

Towards the end of last year, a favorite artist of mine, the critically acclaimed Beck, released his 14th studio album, Hyperspace. Is Hyperspace good? No. Is it overproduced, uninspired, soulless and completely disappointing garbage? Most certainly.

I was hardly surprised, considering 2017’s Colors was almost equally underwhelming, but a small part of me had hoped before Hyperspace’s release that it would give me at least some sign that Beck was returning to his weirdo roots. Obviously, that small hope in me was crushed upon the record’s release. Now I am left bitter and jaded, forced to settle, at least for the foreseeable future, with the fact that Beck’s wonderfully strange excursions into folk and electronic pop have been completely sanitized from his identity. 

Recently, I’ve been frequently returning to Beck’s early work, his weirdo folk rock debut Mellow Gold and the sample heavy and groovy Odelay especially. As I get down to tracks like “New Pollution” and “Where It’s At” and bask in the absurdity of songs like “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)” and  “Soul Suckin’ Jerk,” I am left with one question: What happened to Beck?

Beck’s sanitation into a soulless pop machine was not a sudden one, and I suppose I should’ve seen it coming. Inclinations of it can be seen as early as 2006’s The Information, a foray into spacy electro-funk inspired alt-rock, co-produced by Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame. While I have a special appreciation for this record due to it being a prominent member of my parent’s CD collection when I was but a young boy, I cannot deny that Beck’s lyricism and songwriting on this album is leagues removed in terms of outlandishness from his prior releases. Beck’s imagery is still somewhat nonsensical at this point in his career, but it possesses a certain seriousness that separates it from what came before.

The Information

“Dark Star,” for example, features absurdly strange post-apocalyptic imagery. 

Hovering in carbon monoxide cremations

Loners waste away inside of vacant locations

Think tanks empty, international dream bank

Plug in my reactor to the fallout zone

Tonaly, this song is dark and contemplative, which contrasts greatly with something like “Hotwax,” off of Odelay.

Silverfoxes looking for romance

In the chain-smoke Kansas flashdance ass pants

And you got the hotwax residues

You never lose in your razorblade shoes

His instrumentals too, are toned down on this Odelay, relying on spacey synth pads and slow tempos. At the time, these aspects of the record may have seemed like a sign that Beck was merely maturing, but in reality, the implications were much greater than that.

After The Information, it wouldn’t be until 2008 that Beck released his next album: Modern Guilt. On Modern Guilt, Beck collaborated with yet another acclaimed producer, Danger Mouse. In my opinion, Danger Mouse’s track record as a producer is somewhat hit or miss. Sometimes, he produced classic albums like Gorillaz’ Demon Days, other times he produced albums like Modern Guilt. The production on this album is bland, homogenous and lifeless. 

Modern Guilt  has a similar texture to that of The Information, but lacks even the interesting samples that gave The Information at least some semblance of personality. This record resorts to an uninspired alt-rock repertoire of sounds and instruments to fill in its low energy, reverb-heavy atmosphere. Beck’s vocal delivery is rather quiet and sleep inducing as well, and there are no traces of enthusiasm in any of his lyrics or vocal melodies here. Beck’s increasing urge to create a mature and controlled sound is like a vampire, draining life slowly from his songwriting and personality as a musician. At this point, the sanitation of Beck has almost reached a tipping point. Where this record is at least palatable, Beck’s future releases would certainly not be.

Morning Phase

Six years later, Beck released Morning Phase, a straightforward singer-songwriter folk album. In all honesty, I have not listened to this album all the way through. In truth, I don’t know if I’ve listened to a single song on this album all the way through. It may have won a Grammy for album of the year, but I’m not going to pretend that means anything. Really, if it does show anything, it’s how mainstream Beck’s sound had become at that point. 

Following Morning Phase, Beck released the previously mentioned Colors and Hyperspace. Which brings us back to today, and to my bottomless disappointment in Beck’s career trajectory. I really don’t have much hope for Beck, and I’m sure he is damned to fade into relative obscurity over the next few years. While I’ll have to learn to accept that the lovable loser has lost his touch, at least I can still spin his earlier records and indulge in his bombastic personality while it was in full bloom.