How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New BECK Album



Music Features
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New BECK Album
By
Jun 30, 2003, 00:26

illustration © Darren Goldman

The year was 1993, and I was in high school. I was fourteen, living at home with my parents. I liked pills, girls and MTV. I dug Sonic Youth and the Mary Chain, but was a good two years from knowing who Royal Trux were.

I distinctly remember the first time I'd heard of Beck. Thurston was interviewing him on 120 Minutes right around the time the “Loser” video was being integrated into MTV's late night rotation. When Thurston asked if Beck had an additional first or last name, the obviously wasted Beck responded only by removing his boot and tossing it. “Wow,” said Thurston.

The next day I stole Mellow Gold from the local Wiz and listened to little else throughout summer school.

I hipped my buddy Chris to Beck and almost immediately, he too was a devotee.

Between us, we soon owned every Beck CD single with bonus tracks. Chris scored the rare A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight 10” with an actual Beck finger-painting inside and I ordered Stereopathetic Soul Manure from the back of a skateboard magazine. We must have bought a dozen compilations merely because Beck had a song on them.

Then we found One Foot in the Grave. It was an important record for us as budding indie kids. It would be the first time we'd hear Calvin Johnson's distinctive voice. It was the first album on K Records we ever owned (we thought ‘K' and ‘Kill Rock Stars' were the same label). It was the first time we felt like we were in on something. Chris and I agreed it was a masterpiece.

Friends of ours ridiculed us for being sworn fans of the self-described perdedor. Meanwhile, we toyed with the idea of doing a Beck fanzine and talked about little else.

Chris and I were overjoyed when we heard firsthand reports that the Lollapalooza crowd hurled mud at Beck. It was said that the heckling grew so venomous at one point that it forced our Loser King to duck behind PA speakers and implore the booing masses to stop.

He was officially ours and only ours, and we thought that was how it would always be.

****

Odelay came out on June 18, 1996. I remember us ditching the last day of school to be at the Wiz when it opened to steal a copy.

Upon hearing Odelay, we felt betrayed. To us, Odelay sounded like the Beastie Boys, a capital crime, as far as we were concerned. Chris, by nature the more loyal of our duo, desperately pointed to the two decent songs on Odelay, but it was not enough.

Our Dylan had gone electric.

Within a month, we were grooving to Palace.

****

I paid little attention to Beck throughout college. As far as I was concerned, Mr. Hansen and I were different people now. We'd grown apart. He was rubbing elbows with Alanis Morrissette, and I was discovering Amon Duul. Beck belonged to MTV, and I had a subscription to The Wire.

A CD-R copy of Golden Feelings, Beck's original demo tape, showed up on eBay for a mere $12, and I passed it up.

It wasn't that I felt that I no longer knew Beck—quite the opposite. What initially drew me to Beck was the mystery. I loved his boot-hurling, leaf blower-wielding ways. I remember trying to imagine what his speaking voice would sound like, but could never guess. I tirelessly analyzed his nonsensical rhymes with the ambitious tenacity of a scholar annotating Finnegan's Wake on a dare. I had “Rocket-powered and nailed to the ground” painted on my bedroom door. 

But now Beck was everywhere and belonged to everyone. The impish man-child had become an unlikely pin-up and voice of a generation.

There was talk of him being a Scientologist. Johnny Cash and Tom Petty were covering his best songs. Critics compared him to Prince. There was a rumor that he'd dumped his longtime girlfriend to date Winona Ryder, alternative rock's answer to Bebe Buell, minus the figure.

Whenever I turned on MTV, Beck was there.

He was a mystery that unraveled before my eyes, and I didn't feel much like saluting the emperor in all his ugly, mainstream nakedness.

****

In 1998, Beck released Mutations. The climate was notably different—people had quit tossing mire at Beck and begun to hurl praise instead. Tellingly, a mutual friend of mine and Chris's, one of the most vocal Beck detractors back when he was a Lollapalooza mud-pie projectile, was the first guy I knew to own Mutations.

Mutations was produced by Nigel Godrich, who, at the time, was to post-grunge acts what Desmond Child was to hair bands, a King Midas for artists looking to fulfill their delusions of grandeur (see Radiohead's OK Computer).

The album was said to be a return to Beck's roots. I reluctantly gave it a listen and decided that Beck was officially too big for his britches, and that he'd never return to said roots.

On Mutations, Beck's voice is without nuance. There are no mistakes. There are no lyrics about giant dildos crushing the sun or Satanic tacos. No pink noise.

It was earnest all right—and it sucked.  

It was around this time I actually met Beck in person. In his presence, I couldn't shake the notion that, had I been in this situation years earlier, Beck would have been the second person in my life I'd ever been brazen or desperate enough to ask for an autograph (Zakk Wylde was first). But now I was more psyched to meet free jazz drummer / virtual octopus Tom Surgal, who was also present.

A friend of mine would later release a cassette of Surgal, Beck and Thurston improvising together live, and it was decided among my immediate crew at the time that Beck was the weak link.

You could say I was over it.

Midnite Vultures came and went and held about as much importance to me then as Shania Twain's albums do now. I was working at a radio station and received a free promo copy. I gave it away to a girl who looked like Ani DiFranco who happened to be doing her shitty radio show across the hall at the time. She was psyched to get it.

****

It all seems like a hundred years ago.

A new Beck album recently carried itself to my attention. By chance, I happened upon him performing a new song, “Lost Cause,” live on Letterman, or Leno, or Conan, or whatever. I was surprised by what I saw—here was Beck, quietly strumming this song, with the same detached, possibly drugged look in his eyes as he had eight years earlier when he performed “Pay No Mind” live on 120 Minutes. He looked as he hadn't in years—like a life-sized pair of sunglasses in a thrift store T-shirt. He appeared lost. Bashful. Vulnerable. Sick. I became curious.

Around this time I was given Beck's new album, Sea Change, for review.

Off the bat, Sea Change is rather stunning. The naked intimacy is decidedly 70s, though a pervading country vibe prevents things from getting too self-consciously dew-eyed. The pace is deliberate, the singing less polished. His time is a piece of wax again, an acid-damaged hootenanny played at 16rpm.

While Beck reveals a bit more than someone who once titled a song “Rollins Power Sauce” rightfully should, the lyrics are rarely trite. His heart may be on his sleeve, but the sleeve is still caked with snot. At the very least, it's encouraging.

After living with Sea Change for a day, I went back and listened to One Foot In The Grave. It's still my favorite Beck album, and Mellow Gold is still a close second. Beck will never recapture the hazy naiveté of those extraordinarily private and beautiful records. He reminds me of the archetypal boxing champion who loses the plot, diluted by his fame and wealth, poised to get his ass kicked by a hungry young challenger with nothing to lose.

Still, Sea Change's greatness is immediately apparent. It's a portrait of an artist as a victim of his own self-styled postmodernism. It's rumored to be a break-up record, and it aptly serves as both dramatic eulogy and woozy epiphany. Maybe he's not such a lost cause after all.

On Sea Change, Beck emerges, inexplicably, as a winner.

Now somebody kill him.


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