OUT OF TOON: Beck
Almost three years ago, Beck Hansen burst from Southern California into our collective consciousness with a wacko single, "Loser," followed by a bizarre debut album, Mellow Gold<>. Other than two back-released compilations, Odelay<> is officially Beck's second album, and it's impressive -- as outrageous as Gold<>, but assembled with an even surer hand.
Most "overnight" sensations have to worry about Sophomore Slump. Meanwhile, Beck is already doing postgraduate work -- his ongoing seminar in blues-inflected pop. Although the album's first single, "Where It's At," doesn't look like a "Loser"-style chartbuster, Beck may be able to take over the world even without significant radio presence.
You may be put off by the "Critics Rave!" reputation of Odelay<> (a description of it even kicked off last week's New Yorker<> music issue). Doesn't matter. You'll find it near-impossible not to like. Like your favorite fried food, Beck's music has an infectious appeal that hits you square in the gut.
Unlike such temporary treats, though, Beck sticks with you, his lazy hooks ringing in your head while his punning lyrics sort themselves into sense. In this way he's not so much a short order cook as a Walt Kelly or an R. Crumb, throwing American icons together to build a rich thematic message beneath humorously distorted pictures. Okay, his medium is music instead of pen and ink, but in a way, Beck is a musical cartoonist -- one of the greatest. He's not the first, though. Frank "Does Humor Belong in Music?" Zappa set the standard in this area; Peter Schickele has contributed mightily (check out his Blue Grass Cantata). And the Bonzo Dog Band (with Neil Innes, later Monty Python's songwriter) spent the '60s mixing musical flavors to create some of the funniest, most listenable parodies ever done of pop music.
We could go back to Spike Jones, who took John Cage at his word and found music everywhere -- car horns, burps, sneezes and gunshots -- or even to the Mills Brothers, whose a capella creations so perfectly caricatured pop instrumentation of the '30s. The point is that Beck has taken this legacy and upped the ante: Though he's aggressively goofy and often startlingly funny, his sound effects-laden songs seem almost mainstream, if only because Beck is redefining what "mainstream" can mean. So as wacko as Beck's noisy eclecticism may sound now, it deserves our attention. For if Mellow Gold<> was the wake-up call, Odelay<> will be the collection that tags pop music with Beck's looping spray-painted signature. This album, co-produced with the Dust Brothers (Paul's Boutique<>) keeps the loose danceable rhythms of Gold, but pushes the instrumental envelope to accommodate richer musical textures and more self-referential twists.
On "Where It's At," for example, Beck kicks off the second verse with a singsong "That was a good drum break" -- and indeed it was. That vocal phrase spools off of a bouncing sample, as if Beck is fitting a gag voice balloon into a corner of a panel. Later the song's bi-tonal chorus (it's in two keys at once) is followed by an announcer wondering "What about those who swing both ways -- AC-DCs? "There are obvious jokes, like the emcee in "High Five" yelling "Turn that shit off, man! What's wrong with you, man? Get the other record!" to return the song to its chorus after Beck has drifted over too many self-indulgent bridges. And there are wittier ones -- the ridiculous electronic melody Beck is noodling before "Turn that shit off" is the exact solo from "Novacane" a few songs back.
There's both musical satire (the Eddie Van Halen wannabe struggling through the first break in "Lord Only Knows") and musical absurdity (the minute-long death throes of "Minus"). But it all hangs together, every excess pitched toward a single vanishing point. In a way no one else could pull off, Beck manages to make us tap a foot and bust a gut at the same time.
Throughout, Beck builds a "style" out of juxtaposing and inverting the cliches of blues/pop songwriting in lyrics as well as music. He strings together quasi-meaningless turns of phrase that stumble onto common but overlooked connections. Lines like "stealing kisses from the lepers' faces" and "don't call us when the New Age/gets old enough to drink" are almost completely predictable in their wordplay, but it took Beck to point that out.
In cartoons, standard images are constantly stretched, distorted and exaggerated, to make a point and to make it fun to look at. In Beck's reactive pop, genres are stretched beyond belief and his voice is often distorted by vocoder or other method, fleshing out the characters he takes on. Musical content is so exaggerated that it comments on itself. (This CD's sonic theme includes some classic jokes for faithful LP devotees, e.g. the use of the sound of a needle on vinyl as a fadeout, an intro and a rhythmic device.)
More than that, though, these distortions of his voice crop up so frequently that it sometimes seems Beck has no "real" voice. And his flagrant smooshing of musical genres makes his "style" impossible to describe. Who does he sound like? Who doesn't he sound like? Because his music is reduced to such basics, there are many doors of perception onto his sound. He's not a chameleon -- each song is definitely pure Beck -- but his best lines twist pop cliches into fresh universal hooks.
So some comparisons are easier than others. In his audacity and willingness to combine insanely diverse elements, there's a big Brian Eno (especially Here Come the Warm Jets<>) effect. But you may hear Hank Williams or the Grateful Dead where I hear Raymond Scott or Rise Robots Rise -- or Pavement where my friend hears Parliament.
All seem equally valid in Beck's scraggly tapestry, because he finds the point in each of these bands' sound where their influence connects to all the others. in the same way he dredges fun, catchy sounds out of some of the most butt-ugly noises you've ever heard. All that said, let me add that Beck is not the Messiah. He's put out a couple of really good albums, but he still has some room to grow. For one thing, his fixation on bones ("sweep up my lazy bones," "your old bones are on their own," "put your skeletons in jail," etc.), death and nihilism in general is a kind of thematic dead end: He's got the early Tom Waits apathy/despair mode down pat, but has yet to move into the tricker realm of dreams vs. struggle, wide-eyed hope vs. real loss (e.g. Frank's Wild Years<>).
Likewise, his constantly hard-edged vocals suggest an excessive caution about exposing his singing voice -- only on rare occasions (the closing "Ramshackle," for instance) does he drop his supercocky pose for a hint of vulnerability. And in spite of his attempt to structure each song with enough weird angles to keep it off the Top 40 charts, he leans on some rituals like a crutch (like the gratuitous break between the first chorus and second verse).
But make no mistake: Here's a guy to watch no matter which way he grows. Beck would probably have an impact on pop even if he never put out another album. His subversive casualness and fanatic attention to detail, the combination of which seems impossible until you actually hear what he's doing, suggest another way of putting together pop songs. Because of this, any analysis of Beck is absurdly tricky. Who knows which side, the casual or fanatical, has drawn a given line? Did he put a Major 3rd on top of a Minor 3rd throughout "Derelict" to make it eerier, or was he just clumsy in placing his fingers? With this guy you can almost always believe either. Beck has found a happy medium -- one where refined artistic "talent" and simpleton-style music spewing blend into each other perfectly. It's an idea whose time has obviously come, and isn't likely to go away any time soon.