Midnite Vultures Turns 20
The Beck of the 21st century is a serious artiste. Although he’ll always be known as the guy who made “Loser” and Odelay, since the turn of the millennium, the (ex?) Scientologist slacker icon’s two defining works have been 2002’s sorrowful, string-laden breakup opus Sea Change and 2014’s Morning Phase, the contented Sea Change sequel that became a surprise Album Of The Year winner at the Grammys, much to Kanye West’s chagrin. He has released lots of other albums in the past two decades, some of them more funky and upbeat than others, but since Y2K his most enduring work has erred toward the somber and introspective. Even Hyperspace, his new album out today, is way more chill than you’d ever expect a collaboration between Beck and Pharrell Williams to be.
Perhaps Beck recognized his muse was moving this way and wanted to throw one last blowout before letting so-called maturity fully take hold. Upon releasing 1998’s Mutations — a surprise foray into acoustic sadness following the zeitgeist-defining success of Odelay’s sampledelic genre meld — he promised his last album of the ’90s would be “a party record with dumb sounds and dumb songs and dumb lyrics.” He made good on that promise with Midnite Vultures, released 20 years ago this Saturday.
Nobody realized it at the time, but Midnite Vultures was the last effortlessly fun Beck album. He’s since made attempts to recapture the mischievous kitchen-sink absurdity that made him such a magnetic force in the ’90s, but aside from a stray track here and there, he has been unconvincing. Midnite Vultures, on the other hand, is one of the most gloriously silly, contagiously ridiculous albums I’ve ever heard. It is not a statement album, except maybe a fashion statement. The heaviest feeling it addresses is the unquenchable cartoon lust that animates every song. It’s just Beck Hansen and associates building the grooviest, gaudiest retro amalgamations imaginable and topping them off with every hedonistic non-sequitur he can scrape out of his lizard brain. From start to finish, it is the most magnificent kind of preposterous.
Midnite Vultures begins with Beck announcing, “I want to defy the logic of all sex laws,” and it ends with him suggesting a threesome with a J.C. Penney employee and her sister, delivering lines like “Lady, step inside my Hyundai/ I’m gonna take you up to Glendale” in falsetto with a straight face. In between he piles on all the trashy, glitzy, indulgent imagery he can think of, embodying a louche pickup artist hopping his way across an imaginary underground party scene where business is mixed with leather and milk and honey fall down like money.
Some time around Napoleon Dynamite this kind of winking embrace of low culture reached its saturation point; it’s probably the part of Midnite Vultures that has aged worst. Yet part of the fun of the album is seeing how far Beck will push this character and how many bizarre references he can stack up. Amidst the muscular brass, breathless funk backbeat, and eventual pedal steel/banjo deluge of “Sexx Laws,” he spins tangled yarns of this ilk: “Brief encounters in Mercedes Benz/ Wearing hepatitis contact lens/ Bed and breakfast getaway weekends/ With Sports Illustrated moms.” Shit only gets weirder and more unhinged from there, deranged nonsense piling up until everyone in earshot has gone slaphappy. I mean: “We drop lobotomy beats/ Evaporated meats/ On the high-tech streets/ We go solo/ Dance floors and talk shows/ Hot dogs, No Doz/ Hot sex in back rows.”
If the lyrics on Midnite Vultures push the limits of parody, the music is delirious, inspired pastiche. In Rolling Stone, Jon Pareles called the album a hyper-stylized romp through a rose-colored 1970s flashback: “a nonstop, funk-pumped round of bong hits and white lines snorted via $100 bills, a circuit of mirror-balled dance floors and water beds full of obliging strangers, pre-AIDS and post-Roe vs. Wade.” That’s true of the lyrical content but also of the arrangements, which pile on layers of crazed rhythm and harmony every bit as indulgent as the kinky exploits described therein.
Beck’s party music is always at least somewhat kaleidoscopic. Thus, his version of ’70s disco-funk excess is cut with heavy doses of Prince, occasional outbursts of psychedelic rock and country, hefty helpings of soul and R&B, and a hip-hop ethos dotted with lots of random found-sound flourishes. Working with future NME-core staple Tony Hoffer, future Flight Of The Conchords music maestro Mickey Petralia, and Odelay co-conspirators the Dust Brothers, Beck came up with the most lavish, euphoric, exhilarating music of his career. In terms of sheer sonic pleasure, singles “Mixed Bizness” and “Nicotine & Gravy” rank among the finest tracks he’s ever released, and the deep cuts go nearly as hard.
Not everyone feels this way. Midnite Vultures occupies a strange space within Beck’s catalog, and not just because it’s the last gasp of his wild side. There are listeners for whom it represents his absolute worst impulses, for whom it feels like a very expensive and elaborate bad joke. And then there are people like me, who consider it his creative peak, for whom partying like it’s 1999 will always mean delving into Beck’s twisted vision of 1979. (What does it say about me that I can’t decide whether Midnite Vultures or Sea Change is the best Beck album? Probably that I graduated high school in 2002.)
For all the ironic posturing, poking, and prodding throughout Midnite Vultures, what come through most are Beck’s genuine love for all this music history he’s pillaging and the genius necessary to reassemble it like so. It’s reasonable to conclude that Beck was laying the shtick on a little thick here — to wince at the gauche juvenilia of “Debra” and the asides about making “all the lesbians scream” — but as both party music and a fabulously luxuriant art project, not many records can beat Midnite Vultures. To quote a different Jon Heder movie beloved by the aforementioned Kanye West: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative. It gets the people going.”