Off the Charts

Beck: Where He’s At

Issue 126

Let’s talk lo-fi. Not on the listening end, of course, but as an approach in the recording studio. Singer-songwriter Beck is a pioneer of this strategy that lets the listener hear the real-life sounds of music-making: creaky guitar strings, fingers slapping the keyboard, chuckles shared between colleagues. The idea is that these are not extra-musical sounds but an integral part of the music. For Beck, that embrace of imperfection extends to his scrappy and thoroughly original songwriting.

Beck Hansen was born in Los Angeles in 1970. His father is the Canadian composer and conductor David Campbell and his mother the American artist Bibbe Hansen. Because he was bullied and felt like an outcast, he dropped out in junior high school; the intellectual incisiveness of his lyrics shows that he didn’t need a classroom to get an education. He grew up on church hymns and folk music, only becoming curious about some of the edgier pop music – Sonic Youth, in particular – in his teens. But most important to him were the blues greats like Mississippi John Hurt, whose songs Beck used to sing on city buses on his way to menial jobs.

After a short, penniless stint on New York’s Lower East Side, he became interested in the deconstruction of folk music into bizarre performance art, and that’s how he gained the attention of BMG Records. In 1993 they let him record a single that he thought was inconsequential fun; as it turned out, “Loser” was the key to the kingdom.

But before that culture-shifting song had paved the way to glory and Grammys, Beck cut his first studio album – available only on cassette for the first few years – and released it through the indie label Sonic Enemy. Golden Feelings (1993) drew from the “anti-folk” movement that Beck had been involved with in New York, a punk-flavored satire of how seriously folk music takes itself, shot through with snarky humor and shock value.

The track “Super Golden Black Sunchild” exemplifies this style even in its title. The lo-fi approach is on full display: jangly reverb on guitar, hissing tape tone (the reason for the cassette-only release). The lyrics are arch yet nonsensical, and the biggest dig of all is the voice, artificially pulsing like a telegraph machine to represent fake intensity.

 

Beck embraced the meta sneer of anti-folk and amplified it in every way he could think of. Some copies of the album Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994) ended with the 16-minute track “Bonus Noise,” fragmented sounds that John Cage would have enjoyed. Then again, some copies did not include the track. Reinforcing the parallel attitudes of anti-folk and punk, this record was released by Flipside, the record company started by the California-based punk magazine of the same name.

The fascinating thing about the song “Total Soul Future (Eat It)” is its use of the sonic tropes of old bluesmen, the kind of musicians Beck loved most. He manages to recreate the fuzzy twang of an Alan Lomax field recording and dismember it humorously without making fun of the original genre.

 

The success of “Loser” as a single practically guaranteed that the album it was attached to, Mellow Gold (1994, on DGC), would be a blockbuster. Indeed, that album launched Beck into an entirely different stratosphere of fame. It did not, however, alter his artistic vision. He seems to be one artist who will listen only to his own creative voices, not the siren calls of the music industry.

Although it was released after Mellow Gold, the album One Foot in the Grave (1994) had been recorded earlier on K Records. On this album, Beck displays his passion for American roots music with less irony than on his first two releases. The track list includes a version of the Carter Family’s “Lover’s Lane” (which he calls “Girl Dreams”) and opens with “He’s a Mighty Good Leader,” based on a song by blues guitarist Skip James. Beck plays it on a purposely out-of-tune guitar to drive home the performative aspect of this tribute.

 

Meanwhile, back at DGC Records, Beck made another album for more mainstream distribution; Odelay (1996) is his best-selling work to date and contained the hit “Where It’s At.” He started piling up dour, downer tracks, but switched directions and producers, finding a more upbeat vibe with the Dust Brothers, a production team known for its work with The Beastie Boys.

Having made six albums in five years, Beck slowed his output, not releasing Mutations until 1998. Taking his time paid off: this exceptional record won the Grammy for best alternative music album. It was produced by Nigel Godrich, who worked with Beck several more times.

“Nobody’s Fault but My Own” explores a timbral world layered with Indian sitar and tamburu, supporting a haunting melody. For a change, there’s no trace here of Beck’s natural snideness.

 

He worked with the Dust Brothers again for Midnite Vultures (1999). This record is a cornucopia of poetic and musical accomplishment, from the satirical R&B horn blasts of “Sexx Laws” to the funky hip-hop of “Hollywood Freak.”

Beck was absorbing the rhythmic and sampling techniques of hip-hop, something he has never lost interest in. The gritty “Milk & Honey” samples Buzz Clifford’s 1969 rock and roll song “I See, I Am.”

 

 The title of Sea Change (2002) might refer to the change of tone to darkness and desolation. Produced by Nigel Godrich, the album was particularly beloved of critics at the time, who seem to have been grateful for the lack of both irony and hip-hop in this acoustic-based collection. As for Beck, far from abandoning those two fundamentals long-term, he seems to have simply gone into depressed-guy-slumped-over-guitar mode temporarily to work through a tough break-up.

Here’s the rich, beautiful “Round the Bend,” pulling dissonances from the synth like they’re taffy. You can hear the spirit of Nick Drake in this one.

 

While Beck continues to experiment with various musical and sonic materials (notably the effective use of Brazilian sounds on 2005’s Guero), hip-hop and rap are never far from his creative process. He worked with producer Danger Mouse on Modern Guilt (2008) and with Pharrell Williams on his latest album, Hyperspace (2019). Williams is also given shared credit for writing many of the tracks.

The title song features Terrell Hines, a gifted young singer and rapper with a wide range of musical experience, from hip-hop to the traditional songs of the Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia. Beck’s voice is compressed through a vocoder as he sings long, lyrical lines to contrast with Hines’ gentle rap. “Hyperspace” creates a shimmering synthesized atmosphere tinted with soulful harmony.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Aurelien Guichard, cropped to fit format.

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