A while back, New York magazine pointed out the similarities between the cover art of Beck’s new album and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Beck clearly intends this sly reference to evoke the grit and flippancy of ‘60s folk: In the photo, two anonymous rock musicians stand idly over their shadows. But to call Modern Guilt a straight “revival” would be to ignore the weird blend of country, psychedelic rock and electronica that has been Beck’s trademark since Odelay. “We’re going places we’ve been before,” he sings on “Walls,” whose Cat Power backing vocals and drum loop tip their hat as much to ‘70s rock as trip-hop. The signature of every Beck record is its hands-in-pocket irreverence, eschewing one decade’s sound for several and approaching everything (even death) with the same kind of lo-fi casualness.
And death is what’s been on Beck’s mind lately. Like Sea Change (and to a lesser extent, every album he’s made since), Modern Guilt feels like the work of an artist with burdens to bear. “I don’t know where I’ve been/But I know where I’m going/To the volcano/I don’t want to fall in though,” Beck sings on “Volcano.” Oddly, in spite of (or because of) Beck’s preoccupation with mortality, this is the most invigorating music he’s made in years. After Guero and The Information schizophrenically alternated between different moods in Beck’s career, he’s found a strange hybrid energy that works: “Modern Guilt” and “Youthless” don’t starve for quick beats, but in their skittishness, they share an obsession with memory and the haunting grip it holds on us. Though he’s still best known as the loser with “two turntables and a microphone,” it’s no longer surprising to hear Beck toss out a bitter line like, “I’ve been drinking all these tears so long/All I’ve got left is the taste of salt in my mouth.”
What sets Modern Guilt apart from anything else Beck has made is Danger Mouse, quickly becoming the “it” producer for artists in need of easy cool points. His usual fetishes are on display here—“Modern Guilt” uses a beat similar to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”—but mercifully, they’re not nearly as annoying. Danger Mouse knows how to layer sounds (The Grey Album and Gorillaz’s Demon Days were proof of that) and his achievement here is in making Beck’s many musical fetishes cohere into a distinct work, something Beck’s more hit-or-miss albums have often failed to do. “Chemtrails” makes the most of its spare guitar and drums, and predictably, the worst songs on the album are the ones that rely on a gimmick like the retro guitar hook of “Gamma Ray.” Recently, Beck too often sounds like he’s playing with his toys and not intent on making actual music, but the new album’s brief 10 tracks prove that he’s almost always more interesting when he’s not having fun.