Beck's new album Modern Guilt, produced with Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, will be released July 8, 2008. The new album contains 10 new songs, and with the exception of last year's Grammy-nominated, digital-only single "Timebomb", Modern Guilt is the first new material Beck has written since the prolific stretch that produced 2005's platinum Guero and 2006's universally acclaimed The Information. Modern Guilt is a tightly assembled group of songs that range in lyrical tone from introspection and social commentary to off the cuff wordplay and lighthearted humor. Musically, the album's ten tracks vacillate between economy and experimentation, hybrid and pop classicism, while consistently manifesting Beck and Danger Mouse's shared interest in psych-rock, folk, electronic minimalism and orchestration.
Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
At first glance, it seems like the teaming of Beck and Danger Mouse is a perfect pairing of postmodern pranksters, as neither musician has shaken the first impression he's made: for most, Beck is still seen as that ironic Loser, trawling through pop culture's junk heap, while Danger Mouse is the maverick of The Grey Album, the mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z that reads like a joke but doesn't play like one. Close listening to either man's body of work easily dispels these notions, as Beck has spent as much time mining the murky melancholia of Mutations as he has crafting neon freakouts like Midnite Vultures. He's made a career bouncing from one extreme to the other, occasionally revisiting the cut 'n' paste collage that would have seemed like a natural fit for the sample-centric Danger Mouse, but when he partnered with Danger Mouse in 2008, Beck's pendulum was swinging away from the Odelay aesthetic, as he spent two records on the lighter side, thereby dictating a turn toward the dark. As it happens, this is Danger Mouse's true forte, as his productions have almost uniformly been dark, impressionistic pop-noir, whether he's working with Damon Albarn on the Gorillaz or the Good, the Bad & the Queen, or collaborating with Cee-Lo as Gnarls Barkley (whose fluke hit "Crazy" had nasty rumbling undercurrents) or even blues-rockers the Black Keys. So, he turns out to be a perfect fit for Beck, just perhaps not in the way that many might expect, although the title of their album Modern Guilt should be a big tip-off that these ten tracks are hardly all sunshine and roses.
Compared to the waves of grief on Sea Change, Modern Guilt trips easily, as this is a deft tapestry of drum loops, tape splices, and chugging guitars pitched halfway between new wave and Sonic Youth. This may not brood but it's impossible to deny its heaviness, either in its tone or its lyrics. Beck peppers Modern Guilt with allusions to jets, warheads, suicide, all manners of modern maladies, and if the words don't form coherent pictures, the lines that catch the ear create a vivid portrait of unease, a vibe that Danger Mouse mirrors with his densely wound yet spare production. As on his work with Albarn and the Black Keys, Danger Mouse doesn't impose his own aesthetic as much as he finds a way to make it fit with Beck's, so everything here feels familiar, whether it's the swinging '60s spy riff on "Gamma Ray," the rangy blues on "Soul of Man," the stiff shuffle of the title track, or the thick and gauzy "Chemtrails," which harks back to the sluggish, narcotic psychedelia of Mutations. Danger Mouse assists not only with execution but with focus, pulling in Modern Guilt at just over half an hour, which is frankly a relief after the unending sprawl of The Information and Guero. Its leanness is one of the greatest attributes of Modern Guilt, as every song stays as long as it needs to, then lingers behind in memory, leaving behind a collection of echoes and impressions. If anything, Modern Guilt may be just a little bit too transient, as it doesn't dig quite as deep as its subjects might suggest, but that's also par for the course for both Beck and Danger Mouse: they tend to prefer feel to form. Here, they deliver enough substance and style to make Modern Guilt an effective dosage of 21st century paranoia.
On his tour behind 2006's The Information, Beck and his band were accompanied by a troupe of marionette doppelgängers. Projected onto a big screen, the dot-eyed puppets mimicked the group with uncanny accuracy; if Beck triumphantly raised his hand during "Devil's Haircut", his counterpart quickly followed. As the distance between concert DVDs and concerts themselves continues to dwindle, the puppet scheme was a winning example of spontaneous, analog cleverness. It was also a crafty bit of outsourcing. The cute figurines provided much of the night's visual entertainment while offering a distraction from Beck's increasingly uninvolved performances. Since the famed stops on his Odelay tour more than a decade ago, he's become a static shell of his former break-dancing, bed-humping self. Similarly, while Beck has gotten darker and more apocalyptic, he's tried to temper his direness with upbeat, counter-punch production from the Dust Brothers, Nigel Godrich, and now, Danger Mouse. Though Modern Guilt is more direct and consistent than his last two scattershot LPs, it also finds the disillusioned L.A. hippie struggling to balance his deathly outlook with his more crowd-pleasing inclinations.
It wasn't always like this. At his creative peak Beck tackled everything from R&B to hip-hop to folk, and more often than not, his songs' sentiments matched their styles. On a base level, Sea Change was full of downtrodden couplets matched with picturesque melancholia; the falsetto zaniness of Midnite Vultures corresponded with its equally bizarre and hilarious imagery. And while there were plenty of serious specters like ghosts and devils all over Odelay, they were used to symbolize the invincibility of youth while the album's pastiche funk kept the post-modern party alive. But starting with Guero, the disconnect between the singer's frisky beat-based pop and his suffocating anxieties became more apparent ("Earthquake Weather", for instance, was filled with musings like, "The days go slow into a void we filled with death"). And now, after the overlong space jam The Information warned of modern society's ills while pumping futuristic dance-folk, we get Modern Guilt, probably Beck's most harrowing collection of songs yet.
As usual, you probably wouldn't pick up on the record's gravity by putting it on at a cookout. Danger Mouse does a decent job of injecting the record with the same 1960s sounds found on Gnarls Barkley's LPs: Scratchy snares, surf-rock rhythms, and piano vamps pop up and disappear in no-nonsense, three-minute bursts (at just over a half hour, the disc is half as long as The Information). Beck's first new producing partner in eons, Danger Mouse mostly plays into the star's love of vintage aesthetics while working in snippets of his signature style. The wobbly rocker "Orphans" could be a Mutations outtake, drum 'n' bass lullaby "Replica" would sound at home anywhere on The Information, and the lush "Volcano" would have made an excellent Sea Change bonus cut-- it's also one of very few songs on the album that couples its tenuous ennui with an appropriate backdrop. Interestingly, the record's best psych-rock showing-- the tripped-out "Chemtrails", featuring a wicked drum exhibition courtesy of longtime Beck collaborator Joey Waronker-- is also the only track that doesn't include any of Danger Mouse's beats or loops.
Elsewhere, Beck pushes his happy/sad dichotomy to its breaking point. "Gamma Ray" combines a beach-party beat with ecological updates ("If I could hold hold out for now/ With these icecaps melting down") and a call for nuclear annihilation. The title track comes on with plenty of Spoon-esque strut and swagger only to dwell on collective insecurities: "Don't know what I've done but I feel ashamed." These are nice tricks, but after two albums of similar bait-and-switches, they grow tired; with the world legitimately bent on a one-way trip to hell, Beck fails to ease the tension with the unadulterated fun he built his name on. (Tellingly, the 38-year-old recently admitted he's "not proud of" several songs from his wildest LP, Midnite Vultures, all signs of which have been erased from his live show.)
"I'm tired of people who only want to be pleased/ But I still want to please you," sings Beck on closer "Volcano". It's the most personal song on the album, where the alt-rock journeyman stunningly conflates his own troubles with those of the world at large. In his heyday, Beck seemed to please everyone by pleasing himself-- each new genre excursion was met with new fans and a fresh appreciation for his limitless talent. Now things don't come so easy. "It's harder and harder to write songs these days," he told The New York Times last week. "I'm always slashing and burning, going, 'Is this too on the sleeve?' But if you're not up front like that then you're hiding behind something, so it's a real maneuvering." With its off-the-cuff cover, brevity, and ramshackle feel, Modern Guilt comes off like Beck's attempt to outrun those songwriting complications. But the reluctance to break with his own conventions is still evident. The album ends with a look ahead: "I don't know where I've been, but I know where I'm going/ To that volcano/ I don't want to fall in, though/ Just want to warm my bones on that fire a while." It's a cautious prophesy-- maybe too cautious.
— Ryan Dombal, July 7, 2008