Over the course of his strange, winding career, Beck has never been afraid to call in radically different producers to help him augment and shape his varying personae. On the Dust Brothers-helmed Odelay, Beck explored pop through a hillbilly-from-space lens, warping hip-hop and fried alt-rock in his own image and achieving accidental stardom in the process. One Foot in the Grave found him under the arm of K Records main man Calvin Johnston, and the result was lo-fi junk blues. Nigel Godrich took the reigns on Mutations, Sea Change, and The Information, and brought with him the same marked precision he brought to Radiohead and Paul McCartney. Then there’s Midnite Vultures, a funk homage that found Beck flanked by a wide cast, including The Dust Brothers, Beth Orton, and Johnny Marr.
It's no real surprise that Beck chose Danger Mouse -- in high demand after his work with Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, Gnarls Barkley, and The Black Keys -- to produce Modern Guilt, his 10th album. What's slightly shocking is how direct and focused the album is. Though both artists are known to some degree for their sonic goofball-ism, Modern Guilt features Danger Mouse amplifying subtle aspects of Beck’s discography, particularly the hazy, reverb-heavy daze of Mutations and Sea Change, and adding to it a liberal dose of new wave keys, rough-hewn distorted electric guitar, and loopy, late-’60s soft psych.
Beck’s spent the better part of the new millennium re-imagining the concept of ‘the album’ as an open-ended source, with endless remixes and do-it-yourself cover art, but Modern Guilt is a Long Player in the proper sense, right down to its toss-off cover art. Opening track “Orphans,” featuring breathy layers courtesy of Cat Power's Chan Marshall, starts things off with a propulsive vibe. “Gamma Ray,” with its surfy guitar and apocalyptic mentions of “ice caps melting down,” keeps things playful. “Chemtrails” showcases one of Beck’s prettiest melodies yet, bathed in reverb and headed for outer space, but bound to Earth by the arena-ready drum rolls and bassline.
And Beck hasn’t abandoned his funky side. “Youthless,” with its club-ready beat and Grandmaster Flash synth line, sounds like it could have ended up on Midnite Vultures had Beck decided to ape Prince with the vocals; instead he moans lines like “My body can’t get no relief” with a tired croon. Marshall shows up again on “Walls,” harmonizing with Beck on lines as political as he's ever been: “There’s warheads stacked in the kitchen.” The song ends at just over two minutes: “Your heart only beats in a murmur/ But your words ring out like murder.” “Soul of a Man” suggests Beck as an unlikely Desert Sessions collaborator, its robot riffing sounding suspiciously like Queens of the Stone Age, while “Profanity Prayers” grooves on a mellow Sonic Youth/VU burn. Album finisher “Volcano” ends things on a pensive but decisive note: “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/ I just want to warm my bones for awhile.” The album comes to a close with a mesh of roll-the-credits strings, electronic clicks, and Beck’s soft, wordless chorus.
With constant references to religion, bombs, planes, and global warming, it's fair to suggest that Beck is making a statement with Modern Guilt. What exactly that statement may be is not entirely clear, but it’s certainly heavy, and it’s certainly grown-up. In the ’90s, Beck personified the slacker mold, always the coolest kid in the room, always apt to do whatever the hell he wanted. Maybe in the Clinton era that sort of smart-ass art-school kid thing could get you somewhere. 2008 requires more focus and more grace. Modern Guilt delivers both.