March 7, 2005

MELLOW FELLOW:

Beck at a Certain Age (ARTHUR LUBOW, 3/06/05, NY Times Magazine)

Had he been born a generation earlier, Beck (he dropped the Hansen when he started performing) would most likely have been a folk singer with a guitar strapped over his shoulder and a penchant for wryly autobiographical or protest songs. Instead, even after releasing five far-ranging and well-received major-label CD's, he is still best known for his early single, ''Loser,'' from 1993. ''Loser'' is a white-boy rap song, with an infectious recurring melody that vaguely recalls the close of the Beatles' ''Hey, Jude.'' Its deadpan refrain -- ''I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me'' -- became a slacker mantra of the 90's. Was he serious or joking? The question itself seems generationally dated. Every either-or inquiry that you put to Beck or apply to his songs is resolved with a ''maybe'' or a ''both.''

The man himself has a calm, earnest manner that takes in much more than it gives out. His blue eyes seem as big as satellite dishes. He listens so intently that the auditory act is almost audible. He is quietly polite; and, much as the exquisite manners of the Japanese preserve their privacy from outsiders, his courtesy acts as a moat. In the ''Loser'' spirit of semi-serious self-deprecation, his latest album -- which will be released later this month -- is called ''Guero.'' Although he would have a hard time these days passing for a loser, as a rapper Beck remains, most definitely, a guero.

Beck's jokey, jivey sound is disarming, like the patter of a scrawny kid who can't make the football team but uses wit to insinuate himself into the in-crowd. The poetic associations of his rap owe more to Bob Dylan's ''Mr. Tambourine Man'' and ''Subterranean Homesick Blues'' than to the hip-hop of Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg. He is musically omnivorous. Having introduced his collagist style on ''Mellow Gold,'' the major-label debut album that revealed he was more than a one-hit wonder, he enriched things musically on his second major release, ''Odelay,'' with forays into blues, country and hard rock, overlaid with multiple scrims of synthesizer distortion and D.J. scratching, all refracted through his distinctive sensibility. Most of the instrumental tracks he laid down himself, playing not only guitar (acoustic, electric, slide, bass) but also drums and keyboards. In the studio, he is quietly professional, but onstage with a band, he transforms into a dervish of upbeat energy. ''He's not a virtuoso musician, but the stuff he plays is so soulful and emotional and meaningful,'' says Mike Simpson, one-half of the Dust Brothers team that helped produce ''Odelay'' and ''Guero.''

Is Beck original or derivative? It is a question that has dogged him from the beginning, and he responds with resigned exasperation: ''I don't think I've written a song where someone in my band or an engineer doesn't go'' -- and he whistles a few bars sarcastically -- '''Oh, that sounds like that Allman Brothers song.' In my defense, whatever it sounds like, I haven't heard. There's certain conventions if you're playing acoustic guitar and it's an open tuning, and you'll stumble on things that other people have done. I'm focused on imagery, on ideas that are important to me.'' While Beck incorporates the idioms of popular American music, especially black music, into his compositions, he manages to produce work that bears recognizable traces of its origins yet stays unmistakably his own. As his career advances, the question is shifting from ''How much does this record sound like other people's records?'' to ''How much does the new one sound like the old ones?''

A decade or so ago, when Beck emerged on the scene, the music industry was uncertain which would dominate the future -- the alternative rock of Nirvana and Pearl Jam or the rap of Public Enemy and Tupac. As a look at any week's Billboard will tell you, that confusion has ended. Rap rules. Whether Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes is the next Dylan is a debate topic for critics; whether the Game is the next Nelly is what matters to the broader, youth-driven culture and the industry executives who fuel it.

With precarious grace, Beck straddles both worlds. As a white man stretching the parameters of black hip-hop music, he is far from alone: both the Beastie Boys and Eminem, for example, dwarf him in the marketplace. But as an heir to the singer-songwriter tradition who is composing to a hip-hop beat, Beck is essentially unique. On ''Mellow Gold,'' he combined acoustic and slide guitar with rap rhythms in a style that was surprising back then and as ubiquitous as Muzak now. A decade later, in several songs on ''Guero,'' he is nudging his boundaries further, by exploring grown-up feelings of hurt, disillusionment and ambivalence, in the setting of a loop-generated beat.

His last outing was ''Sea Change,'' a record of intimate ballads sung with a live band and produced with minimal studio manipulation. Released in 2002, it constituted -- as its title suggests -- a radical departure from Beck's previous albums. To make it, Beck came into the studio with songs, written a couple of years earlier, that chronicled his emotional depletion at the breakup of a nine-year relationship with Leigh Limon, a clothing designer. The songs on ''Sea Change'' are naked depictions of pain. So I was a little mystified when Mark Kates, a former Geffen Records executive, told me, ''With 'Sea Change,' I really feared his ability to reach people.'' What could he mean? How could the songs from ''Sea Change'' -- in which a typical line is ''Your sorry eyes, they cut through bone/They make it hard to leave you alone'' -- be less accessible than a lyric like ''Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees/Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline,'' which comes from ''Odelay'' -- the disc that won him two Grammys? As it turned out, ''Sea Change'' was a critical and commercial hit, but Kates didn't worry alone. No one was more anxious than Beck. He had written such material before but hesitated to release it. ''I didn't think it was worthy or that people would be interested,'' he says.

The new record returns to the sound of ''Odelay'' -- but with a difference. Beck has retained the ambitions of ''Sea Change.'' ''I really wanted to bring that kind of vulnerability and emotional quality into this record,'' Beck says. ''My tendency when there's beats is to do something that's humorous and off the cuff and throwaway.'' Humor is a defense mechanism. It could be that Beck titled the new record with a derogatory slang term for ''white boy'' because he is still adjusting to the fact that he is an adult -- with a wife, a baby and a house -- who is ready to tackle grown-up themes in his music.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2005 3:08 PM
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