The Beauty Myth
I’m very suspicious of beauty. When it’s right there on the surface I immediately suspect it’s only on the surface, and my BS detector goes on high alert.
I also despise music that tries to make me feel like I’m supposed to like it. You know the type I mean. The ones with a big orchestras, like “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic” (which I don’t actually hate, but you get the idea). It’s like they’re telling me to buy the record so they can cover the cost of orchestra’s tuxedo rentals.
Another one of my musical pet peeves involves singers who brag about how much they love someone (Then why are you hear singing to me, I think?).
Any song with puppies should be treated with utmost suspicion.
And then there are those artists who sing about virtue and spirituality after having clawed their way to the top. Yeah you, Madonna. But to be fair, I liked Ray of Light.
Okay, I’m not even convincing myself here. But I’d like to think I’m predisposed to dislike anything “solemn”.
But once I’m convinced the beauty goes deeper, then I’m beauty’s little bitch. And I end up liking even the most shamefully manipulative songs. The bridge from "Lost in Love" by Air Supply is one of the more embarrassing examples of this. Just ten seconds, but I'll forever live in shame.
And this will come to explain a big chunk of what will eventually end up on my Top One Or Two Hundred Whatevers.
Beck: Suspected Singer of Puppies
Which brings me to Beck. Not Jeff Beck you old geezer you! Beck Hansen. C’mon! You know who I mean!
He started out as one of the coolest people on earth and then slowly (d)evolved into a boring person, just like the rest of us.
The first Beck was the guy who threw everything AND the kitchen sink onto a record. He sampled, he rapped, he even played guitar. He was good at it, and I was good with it. I came to love his first record, Mellow Gold
even though the first time I heard it I though the neighbors from hell had just moved in next door.
Unlike the rest of the world, I didn’t love the even noisier “classic”, Odelay. It was a case of lots of sounds, but none of them sounding great. I’m right, and the world is wrong, of course.
But he got me good with the weird left turn of Mutations. The music was laid back, bluesy and otherworldly. I’d say it was out of character for him, but I wasn’t sure he had any. And it was barely out before he was calling it an anomaly, signaling a quick reversal back to where he was before, wherever that was.
He was clearly a hit or miss kind of guy, and anyway there were plenty of other artists worth checking out, so I figured we were done. I skipped Midnite Vultures.
But then came Sea Change, which I only caught up with a year or two back, where the young smart aleck was now thirty and heart-broken. The music is spare, sometimes enervated, hinting at substance abuse as a means of dealing with the pain.
And everybody - well the old folks with the money anyway - loved it, and he started getting played on Americana stations. But then he was gone yet again, and so was I.
It must have been tempting to replicate the success of Sea Change. So it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise when he announced that he was making a companion record for it. Plus, he was getting older, and after all the genre experiments and noise, didn’t he deserve to make a killing?
Or, to be less cynical about it, maybe he’s just older and wiser, and sees the value in just going for beauty.
On a purely practical level, it sounded promising. But after four CDs I wasn’t sure I’d bite.
Not gritty, not overwhelmingly sad, and with less pain, less need for numbing it. In other words, real pretty.
So what’s wrong with that? Not a whole lot.
But gone is the razor sharp wit. (No lines like “She’s got tofu the size of Texas”)
And when he dispenses with all the noise, you notice he’s got a surprisingly narrow bag of tricks.
And dissonant strings are getting a bit tired. Thankfully he limits them to the short theme cuts. “Wave” does get a little out of hand, though.
And you can’t help but notice that the first song begins exactly the same way as the first one on Sea Change, so you prepare for the worst.
But it doesn’t come. It’s almost as if he’s telling you that although he could be starting from the same point as Sea Change, this time he wants to go in a different direction.
And I have to admit, he’s good at deploying those limited tricks - a banjo, pedal steel, piano and especially those echoey Buffalo Springfield guitar chords - where they’re needed..
Hard core Beck fans who didn’t care for Sea Change, won’t like this even more conservative work. Beck should be re-inventing music, they say. Well, maybe he should, but I’ll take what I can get.
So I won’t judge this record on what Beck is “supposed” to be doing. If I did, Morning Phase comes up way short in that it's nothing new under the sun other than Beck being happy.
If I simply judge it on it's own merits, I have to conclude it's a beautiful record from an unexpected source. Although with Beck I should know by now to expect the unexpected.
Does it really matter that he used to be an innovative twenty-year old? Why can’t he just make a pretty record? It is what it is. Like Nashville Skyline.
So let the young folk scoff. They probably have the time to hunt down more adventurous music than this, but I don’t.
On a weird side note, it wasn’t a great summer fun-wise, but I had all these beautiful songs to go with my malaise. The effect was not unlike the deep bittersweet painful days of Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.
Thanks a lot Beck!
But, seriously, thank you. A-