Beck’s “Loser” represented the sound of the nation’s youth wearing their slackerdom as a badge of honor. It’s a rather dubious fate for the workmanlike track, considering that if Gen X ever “had” a sound, it was the slow, snarling grunge roiling out of the Pacific Northwest, a genre far too self-possessed and clumsily aggressive to match the decidedly goofy appeal of Beck’s patchwork style. If anything, “Loser” was a middle finger to the self-serious headbangers, Beck’s own shrug at the angsty masses before ignoring them altogether and staking his career on offbeat lonerism.
The lonesomeness that results from possessing such an individualist streak is explored rather profoundly on Morning Phase, Beck’s first album in six years, but regardless of the personal costs, he’s become a folk hero, having built his legacy on championing near-forgotten strains of Americana at every turn. Constructing a list of his best tracks can thus be likened to assembling a mosaic pieced together from several generations of music. The songs themselves aren’t simply attention-starved amalgams strung together randomly, however: For all his humor, Beck is consistently thoughtful and earnest in building his checkered monuments, empathetic to the point where his creations often cease to be facsimiles at all, but heartfelt creations born from the same cultural conscious that inspired them. You can’t write if you can’t relate, indeed.
There are times when Beck seems more interested in irreverent experimentation and nodding to his own influences than actual songwriting, but on the flip “Hell Yes,” he manages to strike a balance between both endeavors. Underneath the looping sonar, random asides, and Christina Ricci voicing a Japanese waitress, the track is Beck’s tribute to old-school DJing, the messy, sweaty, vinyl-based work that eschews “fax machine anthems” for good old plate-switching.
“It’s All in Your Mind”
A holdover from Beck’s earlier and much rawer folk recordings, the Sea Change version of “It’s All in Your Mind” is a kaleidoscope of slow, gorgeously rendered self-deprecation. As a dusty acoustic guitar and whispering string quartet grow more and more entangled, Beck delivers blow after blow to his own withering pride, until finally pinpointing the rot both within and without: “Well you’re all scared and stiff, a sick stolen gift,” he moans, “and the people you’re with, they’re all scared and stiff.”
Beck has subverted pop aplenty, but Guero’s “Girl” is one of his few attempts at a wide-eyed tribute. Of course, this jaunty track isn’t without its own morbid farce, tracing the usual tale of obsessive romance to its natural, if utterly psychotic, end. The track breaks away from its 8-bit prelude into a shaggy acoustic guitar as Beck’s stalking narrator reveals his murderous plans for the eponymous target. “I know I’m gonna make her die,” he sings, the chorus bouncing along to his honeyed death threats.
“Defriended” was the first thing anyone heard from Beck in the five years since Modern Guilt, and quite appropriately, the track is built around what sounds like a box of records dropping out of two-story window. The impact ripples out in electronic pulses, almost drowning Beck’s fatalistic lyrics, but his final call to arms, “Turn it all around!,” comes through crystal clear.
Beck solidified his reputation as a genre-masher on Odelay, and this honky-tonk acid jam is one of the reasons why. “Hotwax” is as quilt-like a track as Beck has ever written, stitched together with parts of quiet storm funk, late-night line dancing, and even polka. “I’m the enchanting wizard of rhythm,” goes one sample at song’s end, an understatement of Beck’s ability to turn disparate parts into cohesive sums.