And now, the first installment of “Stuff Rob Forgot to Assign,” and most assuredly not the last.
As someone who considers “Satan Gave Me a Taco” a top-5 Beck song, I am dismayed at his steady slide into self-seriousness; the notion that he’s now embarrassed by the wanton lasciviousness of Midnite Vultures is quiet upsetting. This isn’t a Beastie Boys situation, a pile of regrettable fratboy antics and attitudes he has to disown now that he’s older and wiser. He was goofing around. And while Beck these days goofs around more often than gets credit for—”Hell Yes” and “Nausea,” along with that whole puppet thing, prove he’s not a total sourpuss—it’s tough to deal with Modern Guilt, the An Inconvenient Truth of rock records, and only moderately funkier.
Shit, he’s always been a quietly macabre dude, but this is plainly, grimly apocalyptic stuff: hurricanes, melting icecaps, myriad references to his own bones, their fading warmth and eventual disposal. The catchiest tune here, “Chemtrails,” unveils an unmoored, bombastic bassline and subsumes it in suffocating melancholia, Beck moaning “So many people/So many people” as though it’s the saddest thing he’s ever thought, heard, sung. It’s arresting and beautiful, but replicating that mood over a whole album, even one as appealingly brief as this, makes you long for a bit of levity, a “pants”/”dance” rhyme, a smile, a smirk, something.
Danger Mouse is actually perfect to produce this sort of thing, already an expert, thanks to his Gnarls Barkley dalliances, at making depression and dementia palatable, appealing even. His snare-drum sound is immaculate—this is of no small importance. But too much of Modern Guilt is way more interesting than it is engaging, expertly crafted but clinically frigid, playful but profoundly joyless. The closer, “Volcano,” though, works a bit harder to earn its ennui, a skittering sound like a malfunctioning sprinkler spread over top (nice touch on such an eco-friendly record), the pace funereal but steady, the drums pristine as always, Beck’s cooing zombie backing vocals sourly sweet, and his lyrics almost rudimentary: He heard about a Japanese girl who jumped into a volcano, and he wrote a song about it, including the lines “And I heard of that Japanese girlWho jumped into/The volcano.” It will stop you short. It will make you consider donating to Greenpeace. No guarantees, though, that it’ll make you start the record over again.