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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

David Yaffe
February 18, 2014
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” It’s hard to believe that it has been 21 years since this refrain emanated from what seemed like a novelty record by a certain Beck Hansen, who made self-loathing into something with a good beat that you could dance to, something my generation clearly needed. Generation X was named after a trendy book by Douglas Coupland alluding to a minor punk band fronted by Billy Idol. I started college in 1991, part of a cohort that seemed to be contributing nothing to the world. That summer, Richard Linklater’s Slacker became an underground hit (and convinced me that going to UT Austin, where I nearly enrolled, would be a terrible idea) and Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts. It seemed that people in my aspirational group—that is, those who were just past college age—were making generational anthems about unworthiness.

And yet Beck’s “Loser” wasn’t just any record about being a loser. It was an ode to failure with a self-lacerating duende, one that would grow darker and more grave over time. “Loser” was layered with hilarious samples (“Things are gonna change, I can feel it”), an infectious, Folkways-style blues riff, and, above all else, it had attitude—spot-on and pitch perfect. It was an ideal record for the 1993 zeitgeist. Kurt Cobain was still alive, but Nirvana put out a record, In Utero, that made it clear that Cobain was in a lot of pain and could not to take it much longer. A year before “Loser,” Radiohead released “Creep,” their debut single, which made a similar point, but with more beauty and less parody. It was, in the early ’90s, all the rage for sensitive young men to find innovative ways to hate themselves. I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, rape me, all apologies, I’m a liar and a thief, I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me? Cobain was giving us a preview to his funeral, but Radiohead and Beck were, by comparison, merely flirting with Wetlzschmerz. (Beck’s marvelous and dysphoric new album, Morning Phase, is evidence that he is still perfecting the art of losing.)

We Gen Xers sure knew how to be self-deprecating. It’s a long way from there to, say, Kanye West. Of course, “Loser” turned out anything but a novelty record. Beck’s second major album Odelay won Grammys in major categories and, in demonstration of critical consensus, the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll; as an afterthought, it sold 2.3 million copies in the United States alone. The album was a seamless collection of parody and pastiche. Everything was a joke, yet it was stunningly textured and layered. This album included samples of Stan Getz’s “Desafinado” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony (already a fragment, of course), along with a guest appearance by legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who—from his tenure in the great Ornette Coleman Quartet and beyond—knew a thing or two about the beauty of noise and the depth of euphony. Beck made fun of rap—or, perhaps, showed his love for it—by rapping. One of the raps, “Where It’s At,” had, as its parenthetical title, a riff on The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”: “Rock the Catskills.” The guy could rap, sample, and kind of dance, but with borscht belt timing.

I should say at this point that I am not one usually in search of a voice of my generation. My relationship to music is largely historical and archival. When I was in college, I was writing articles about Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins and having conversations with like-minded friends about which conductor was best for which Mahler symphony, or which string quartet was optimal for Beethoven or Debussy or Bartok. But there were exceptions. People look for voices of their generation for the same reason they stay in touch with their high-school or college friends. In addition to an emotional connection, you have a shared sensibility that people somewhat older or younger won’t quite get. So, there were, for my generational peer group, some voices impossible to ignore. The Werther myth of Kurt Cobain hit me along with everyone else I knew, and, among Gen Xers, I found myself following Radiohead and Beck (who were a little older) and Fiona Apple (who was a little younger), along with a few others.

Among that crowd, Beck was the only one who I could recognize as a funny Jew. Beck was a surprisingly graceful dancer, but he used his goofiness cannily, as if the fact that he was even this decent was just a hilarious thing to watch, like the climactic ending of Napoleon Dynamite. He was adorable but also knew he looked like a dork, so the fact that he was pretty limber was part of the joke. Before Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon mixed music and comedy, Beck found that sweet spot first; plus his writing was consistently sharp, and his musical instincts—brought to life by The Dust Brothers and Nigel Godrich—were as stunning as they were idiosyncratic. Critics, including Robert Christgau, were using his name in the same sentence as Dylan. His funniest track, “Debra,” is mostly sung in falsetto, Prince-style. After an outrageous build up, with lines like, “I said, lady, step inside my Hyundai,” he gives the kicker: “I want to get with you, only you/ And your sister, I think her name’s Debra.” His falsetto is as outrageous as the song. Before he recorded it for Midnite Vultures (1999), the song was a cherished secret among Beck fans, who would talk about how each version that closed the show was even longer and more extravagant than the last. Footage from the VH1 Fashion Awards shows him putting his Prince on for the ladies in the house and having a blast.

Soon he would be neither funny nor a Jew. Early on, he would emphasize his Jewish heritage with interviewers—and, just like he was enough of a rebel to drop out of ninth grade, he missed his bar mitzvah, too, but who cared? He was, apparently, in the tradition of Dylan and Cohen and Reed and The Beastie Boys. Before “hipster” became a dirty word, he was hipster royalty. His grandfather, the artist Al Hansen, was a founding member of the Fluxus group and friend to Yoko Ono and John Cage; he lived to see “Loser” become a hit and thought that Hip-Hop was an outgrowth of Dada. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, was a member of the Warhol Factory and appeared in several of his films. His father, David Campbell, wrote string arrangements for Carole King, Jackson Browne, and Leonard Cohen, among others; he would eventually score arrangements for his son. By the new millennium, Beck would begin to lose things for real, and even if it wasn’t fatal, his pain was unmistakable. His girlfriend of nine years left him, and he ended up marrying Marissa Ribisi, who was not only a Scientologist, but who was actually delivered by Beck’s mother, also a Scientologist. (Followers of L. Ron Hubbard do home births.) It turned out that Beck was barely a funny Jew: His paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. His mother is half-Jewish but raised him Scientologist. And yet when the joking stopped, his work just got better. His breakup album, Sea Change (2002), was hailed as a masterpiece. Rolling Stone thought it was the best thing he ever did and compared it to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

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 mopeyMorning 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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David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. He is currently at work on a musical memoir titled Seemed Like the Real Thing.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack: