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It Takes a Lot To Laugh: The Parody and Pain of Beck

New ‘Morning Phase’—six years after his last album and 21 since becoming a loser, baby—shows the Gen-Xer just getting started

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Getting such reviews would be fabulous if one were in a better mood. But clearly you can’t make it to the adult’s table of rock ’n’ roll if you’re just goofing on Prince, no matter how brilliantly you do it. On Mutations (1998), he was already getting high on the low end. “Cold Brains,” “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” and “O, Maria” anticipated an acoustic-based gloom to come. “Looking back at some dead world that looked so new,” he sang, before the band broke into a Pixies’ like gestalt of noise. Sea Change takes that sadness and stretches it out for an entire album; it is a song cycle, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, and it sustains many hours of sublime moping. The lyrics and chords are simple; the sound is a dead ringer for 1972. There are no samples, no in-jokes. The drums hit soft, and the simple triads accompany a voice that sounds soaked in Hank Williams, a reminder of footage of when Beck was riding high with Odelay and saw, from a hotel room, footage of Johnny Cash praising his song “Rowboat.” Beck responds with tears. Sea Change imagines a genius in Laurel Canyon who dropped this beautiful record for Elektra/Asylum circa 1972 and it somehow got lost. If it had been made then, it would have made Jackson Browne rethink his game. Like Browne, he was a handsome devil with floppy hair and might have, also like Browne, had an affair with Joni Mitchell, which would have inspired an even darker album.

After Sea Change, our Doyen of Loserdom went through the usual rites. He got married, became a father, he integrated aspects of his younger, more ebullient self with his darker, apocalyptic self. The title track to Guero (2005) alludes to the Spanglish term thrown at him—meaning “white boy”—by his Latin neighbors in the downtown L.A. of his youth and features his return to parodic rap, complete with references to James Joyce, Michael Bolton, and going to Cap N’ Cork to get the new Yanni cassette. Other songs, like “Missing,” are a samba of sadness. The second half of The Information (2006) has an awful lot about spaceships and aliens, and unlike Radiohead’s OK Computer, it’s not intentionally about paranoia; in its L. Ron Hubbard version of reality, it’s serious. Sometime before the rather perfunctory Modern Guilt (2008), Beck suffered a serious spinal injury. He was apparently in pain cutting tracks for the album, and he can no longer bust out those lovably goofy dance moves. He can, though, go back to the melancholic territory of Sea Change, which is exactly what he did with the equally gorgeous and equally mopey Morning Phase, available on Feb. 25. In the six years between these albums, Beck published 19th-century-style sheet music and recorded covers of The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” with a 160-piece orchestra. He clearly needed time to heal and refresh. Six years is an eternity in pop music. His last album of original material was released when George W. Bush was still president. The Sea Change musicians are on the new album, and the first vocal track, “Morning,” not only revisits the opening track from Sea Change, “The Golden Age,” it sounds exactly the same, from the chords to the instrumentation. Are these new splatterings of blood on the tracks from more romantic sturm und drang, is he having doubts about Scientology, or is he just in a lot of pain?

The album is marked by a few extended orchestral chords, based on harmony as simple as Beck’s guitar strumming. These arrangements, by Beck’s father David Campbell, sound cinematic, or even like a Hollywood preview. “In a world, where a smartass Jewish kid loses everything, until he finds everything he left behind, and discovers a new world of pain … ” Well, that’s the world of this album. The bleakest (and catchiest) track, “Say Goodbye,” is a simple and sad song about putting a name on all things mourning and melancholia:

See the sleep that rests upon
The quiet street we’re standing on
Is it time to go away? Try again some other day?
These are the words we use to say goodbye
These are the words you use to say goodbye

Bones crack, curtains drawn
On my back and the sheet is gone
Somewhere else I do not know
Time will tell and I will go
These are the words we use to say goodbye
These are the words you use to say goodbye

This song sounds as simple and Anglo-Saxon as the banjo chord that accompanies it, but the feelings are as dark and deep as a pastoral elegy. Beck is calling attention to our language of farewell, when he is also bidding adieu to that smartass kid who could rock the Catskills.

Elsewhere, on “Turn Away,” he sounds like both Simon and Garfunkel, with mellifluously overdubbed harmonies. There’s nothing to see here, folks. And yet, he can’t help but notice all he’s leaving behind:

Turn turn away
From the weight of your own past
It’s magic for the devil
And be careful of the change
Turn away

There is no reason to take the reference to the devil too seriously. He has referred to the devil countless times—“Devil’s Haircut” among many others—in the spirit of Hank Williams or Robert Johnson. But ruefully looking away from the past, and proceeding very, very carefully—that’s pretty, plain, and ice cold. Life will go on, he will experience pain, pleasure, and maybe some pain yet again and somehow live through it all. Scientologists don’t believe in medicine, which not only makes me concerned about his pain management—I mean the clinical kind, not the lonesome country-song kind—but it also strikes me as the most un-Jewish thing imaginable. Beck has clearly lost a great deal but is no more a loser now than he was in those halcyon days of ’93. This vale of tears—sometimes it can just be too much.

Blue Moon,” the album’s first single, sounds nothing like the Rogers and Hart standard for which its named but has a serious case of the blues. The chord progression is nearly as simple as the Rogers and Hart, but it’s more damper down:

I’m so tired of being alone
These penitent walls are all I’ve known
Songbird calling across the water
Inside my silent asylum
Oh don’t leave me on my own
Left me standing all alone
Cut me down to size so I can fit inside
Lies that will divide us both in time

There is absolutely nothing hopeful in these lines, and it gets no better from there, with a turncoat and a vagabond that makes it seem like an update of “Loser.” The song ends with progression of the original “Blue Moon,” and he is indeed left standing alone, without a dream in his heart. He’s begging not to be left alone. We have no idea why—it’s none of our business anyway—but it sure is dark in there.

That funny Jew of Odelay might be in remission for now, but he’s not quite dead. He’s been in pain, but will not go the Kurt Cobain route. He might come back, but with a humor as dark as Kafka or Philip Roth or even good old Leonard Cohen. This album offers little hope, but it is called Morning Phase. His long day’s journey is just beginning.


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It Takes a Lot To Laugh: The Parody and Pain of Beck

New ‘Morning Phase’—six years after his last album and 21 since becoming a loser, baby—shows the Gen-Xer just getting started

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