It’s been some time since we learned Modern Guilt, Beck Hansen’s eighth album, would be some sort of psych rock minimalist ’60s trip with Danger Mouse. Since then, we’ve gotten a look at the old-school jazz/Blue Note-style cover art and a listen to the smeary, phased, chill-out Caribou-on-Brian Wilson sounds of “Chemtrails” along with both the more upbeat “Gamma Ray” (note the Lilys/Deerhunter/etc.-style background vocal echo behind the thwapping groove) and the spaced-out hazy folk of Chan Marshall-guesting “Orphans.” There’s even a Modern Guilt-teasing trailer. That said, listening to all 10 tracks in a sitting fleshes out Beck and DM’s aesthetic, allowing you to spot echoes and overlaps.
Some of us prefer the funky faux-rapping fun Beck (Odelay, Midnight Vultures), while others of us are digging Modern Guilt’s darker, moodier vibe: The title track’s scratchy, hissy rat-a-tat and funk underside (and “Baby Britain” pulses), “Walls”‘s apocalyptic political message for the blanker generation (“You’ve got warheads stacked in the kitchen / You treat distraction like an instant religion … Hey, what are you gonna do when those walls are falling down / Falling down on you?”) set to a glitch-y strut, Danger Mouse’s deep/fuzzed/often ghostly production. On the glitch tip, the revved up drum ‘n’ bassing of “Replica” is a rhythmic and production outlier here, remarkable for those reasons, and for its melodic turns: even if the track itself comes out more like an interstitial studio sketch piece than a truly memorable bit of writing, and even if the production techniques therein leave the ’60s in the dust, the melodies are still rooted in the preadvertised era of psych and faded photos. Sticking to the concept, these guys.
This Beck is mournful mode — we’ve seen it before, and it still suits him well: all sorts of “Walls” falling down around him but never too bummed to dial up great drum sounds, closing the album with a “Volcano” that sees him “drifting on this wave so long,” knowing that crashing is not an “if” but a when. It’s a Sea Change-ing moment that seals the collection in bittersweet gauze, and though it confesses being directionless, his art has never been more on point.
Modern Guilt is not all perfect, and it doesn’t always match the crazy goodness of the advance song streams, but it’s given us the first Beck album since 2002’s Sea Change that we’re digging almost from start to finish. And it’s given us instant classic Beck turns via that grand slam, opening four track sequence. The fact that Beck can still parallel his highest moments eight LPs in as strong a testament to his enduring genius that we could ask for. With that we’re putting “Gamma Ray” on the Happy-Birthday-America BBQ playlist. You should, too.
Modern Guilt is out in Europe and the UK on 7/7 via XL and in North America on 7/8 via DGC. Congratulate Beck in person:
8/22 – San Francisco, CA @ Outside Lands Festival
8/24 – Bend, OR @ Les Schwab Amphiteater
8/30 – Seattle, WA @ Bumbershoot Festival
9/20 – Hollywood, CA @ Hollywood Bowl
9/27 – Austin, TX @ Austin City Limits Festival