Among the geezers and crones of my generation who have no connection with the popular music industry, Beck is the answer to the question.
And the question is: “Name a recording artist born after 1970 whose works you’ve actually gone out and bought.” There might be other names bandied, but Beck is the consensus item, to the degree that I worry about his street cred. In the ’60s, admiration professed by geriatrics for the Beatles helpfully turned the moptops into spinach for many of my contemporaries, and I can see a similar danger lurking for Beck, who is pointedly held up as an artist by people who run screaming from the sounds of, say, Korn. The appeal of “Loser” was easy enough to figure—everybody of a certain age heard it as a descendant of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with a strain of “Memo From Turner,” without sounding anything at all like a classic-rock retread. And then not just anybody would think of covering the blues-gospel classic “He’s a Mighty Good Leader,” and doing it straight, yet. His deadpan, not exactly a major stylistic attribute among the younger set, figured, too. Not to mention that he never exactly discouraged the “artist” label, even in a climate that fears pretension more than death itself.
But Beck is completely of his time just the same, and his new Midnite Vultures is exactly the kind of record that nobody born before 1970 could have conceived of. It’s a pastiche festival that works in the interest of groove every bit as hard as it does for knowingness and yuks. The idea of nonspecific parody as a pop move isn’t entirely new; various hands took their affectionately bemused whacks at doo-wop 30 years ago (and I don’t mean Sha Na Na). The 1970s, though, inspired something else in the people who spent their childhoods there, something like affectionate contempt, or half-embarrassed nostalgia, or defiant espousal of the blithely ridiculous. In that decade, adults didn’t honestly know whether they were witnessing the end of an era or the beginning of a new one, and the result was a desperate muddle. Rhetoric was soft and spongy, poltroons walked the earth in record numbers, clothes were—well, you know what the clothes looked like. People wanted to be authentic, and yet modern, and so they begat the nearly extraterrestrial artificiality we now savor with connoisseurs’ eyes and ears.
That kind of frankensteinian bricolage is a language Beck speaks with great refinement. “Sexx Laws,” Midnite Vultures‘s opening cut (and first single) is a banquet of apposite touches: The horns tip their hat to Stax/Volt, to be sure, but they could also come from a beauty pageant or a car commercial; the bridge is graced by a delirious swirl of synthesizer in skating-rink-organ mode, seasoned with banjo, then topped off with his trademark use of pedal steel—it’s a dream sequence from The Dukes of Hazzard,scored by Carl Stalling. The bridge of “Pressure Zone,” meanwhile, represents another sort of cheese, the sort of la-la that would get itself described as “Beatlesque” not as in the Fab Four, mind you, but as in Badfinger, or the Raspberries. Textures galore make guest appearances throughout, but seldom more than that, because the timing is critical, and held a beat too long the emphasis would slide from booty to laffs, and the party would get stuck.
This is, after all, primarily a funk album, and extending in allusive range as far as the mid ’90s and West Coast hip-hop. Making fun of funk is not exactly the point, but the genre has sprouted at least as many self-conscious mannerisms as countrypolitan, and dues paid to the vocoder are necessarily going to be less than solemn. The funk numbers are weirdly precise evocations of something, but what exactly? With the sole exception of “Get Real Paid,” the Kraftwerk tribute, the allusions are all just out of reach, so that you can identify this chorus as owing something to the Family Stone, or that run as bearing the faint imprint of Zapp, without being able to cite chapter, let alone verse. The CD’s capper, “Debra,” is a languid kind of cinema verité hot date that probably was glimpsed somewhere in the mist surrounding “Me and Mrs. Jones,” but it doesn’t owe anybody any papers that I can tell. (Well, maybe Prince.) Oh, and did I mention that there’s no sampling on this disc? The sampling has been absorbed by Beck and band. They have become what they beheld.
The lyrics follow in Beck’s exquisite-corpse manner, although they too pay tribute to their inspirations. There’s a catalog of cheesy come-on lines here (“Tell me what’s your zip code baby/Did you ever let a cowboy sit on your lap?”), as well as retail-chain sensitivity (“I’m a full-grown man, but I’m not afraid to cry,” which appears in two different songs), turnstile philosophy (“It takes a miracle just to survive”), and at least one item (“I’m mixing business with leather,” also in two different songs) that sounds like it came straight out of a lifestyle magazine feature from the mid ’80s. His delivery of these gems doesn’t betray a chuckle. He sings them like he means them, or at least as if he were channeling variously bored, stoned, or deeply sincere studio personnel of the recent past. Here, too, the implacable precision of the allusions can be nothing short of eerie, as in the two-note falsetto chant, in “Nicotine and Gravy,” that repeats “I don’t want to die tonight” again and again and sounds for all the world like something I last heard on a sound system at a disco with red-carpeted rest rooms, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 1974.
Beck is indeed an artist, a pop artist in fact, in both senses of that term. His band-created pseudo-samples have a texture and effect that is not far from that of the hand-painted non-collages of James Rosenquist, for example, and what he sets out to do, in simultaneously admiring, laughing at, and laughing with the objects of his inspiration, follows Pop to the letter. Collage, montage, assemblage, pastiche—whatever you want to call it—is the hallmark of the 20th century anyway, and Beck would be hep to this even if he didn’t have a grandfather in the Fluxus ranks (as if Fluxus had ranks). The first thing everybody will notice about Midnite Vultures is the accretion of allusion and cut-up, then they’ll boogie down and maybe they’ll never get around to perceiving the fine filigree. But that’s pop music for you—it’s a useful object.