A way into: Beck

By January 12, 2018


Image: Barry Mulling via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Sometimes music is hard. Its breadth and nuance can be daunting, and with music snobs endemic in any scene, it can be easier to take a back seat rather than risk embarrassment. Even with the internet at our fingertips and the resources to explore pretty much anything we want, it can be difficult to know where to begin. So, here it is, a new series called, ‘A way into: (insert prolific artist or alien sub-genre)’ – guides to get you started on that music you always thought about getting into. 

First up is the American genre-hopping singer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, and Grammy award-winning Beck. Having released thirteen studio albums to date, mostly recently ‘Colours’ towards the end of 2017, his back catalogue is undoubtedly hard to navigate. Especially given the fact that one of his albums laments the loss of love in sorrowful acoustic Americana, while another fuses funk, R&B, neologisms, and unlikely lyrical couplets (“Sex in the halls / Niagara falls” and “I said Lady / Step inside my Hyundai”, to name but two). Here’s ten tracks to get you started.

          1. He’s A Mighty Good Leader – One Foot In The Grave (1994)

While some may tackle an artist with a large body of work chronologically, Beck defies this logic, in that he released some his earliest songs on his fourth album, One Foot In The Grave. This was a collection of tracks that paid homage to his early days riding country blues and folk songs on LA buses as a busker. The album is a strange mix of sparse and haunting ditties, and has been lauded by Johnny Cash, who covered this particular number. Other notable tracks: ‘I Get Lonesome’ and ‘Atmospheric Conditions’.

          2. Beercan – Mellow Gold (1994)

Some of Beck’s earliest success came from Mellow Gold blowing up on college radio in the mid-nineties. The album fuses hip-hop, guitars, and sing-a-long choruses, most explicitly found on ‘Loser’. This track, however, contains an understated wackiness in its samples, beats and lyrics, all of which Beck would develop on later albums. Other notable tracks: ‘Soul Suckin’ Jerk’ and ‘Pay No Mind (Snoozer)’.

          3. Rowboat – Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994)

Also released in ’94, this album demonstrated Hansen’s ability to flit between genres, as he moves from traditional country in ‘Rowboat’, to heavy guitar on ‘Rollins Power Sauce’, as well as the hip-hop work he was doing on other albums in the same year. While the album isn’t all that pleasant to listen to at times, what with the badly recorded samples, there are some really lovely tracks, particularly the country-influenced ones. Other notable tracks: ‘Modesto’ and the rather bonkers ‘Satan Gave Me A Taco’.

          4. Devil’s Haircut – Odelay (1996)

Odelay saw Beck’s louder guitar sounds restrained, and the confluence of hip-hop, indie-rock, delta blues, and country, fully realised. It was probably his most commercial album to date, but still retained the sampling quirks of his earlier work, as well as a weird assortment of sounds that stop any of the tracks from becoming conventional forms within in any genre. Lyrically too, this album retains the comical associations that Beck would become known for, and the hints of ‘leather’ paved the way to his 1999 masterpiece. While ‘Devil’s Haircut’ helps with the narrative of this piece, Ramshackle is also a wonderful song, and signposted the inevitable acoustic album to come in the future. Other notable tracks: ‘Where It’s At’ and ‘Sissyneck’.

          5. Tropicalia – Mutations (1998)

A curious take on Bossa nova, with its scrapers, bells and shakers, this track is by no means quintessential of Mutations, which saw Beck draw closer and closer to a toned down acoustic album. Gone were the big beats and zany samples. It seemed he was getting more serious, or that something bad was happening. The album could be seen to be his most cogent in his progression. Other notable tracks: ‘Cold Brains’, ‘Lazy Flies’ and ‘O Maria’.

          6. Debra – Midnight Vultures (1999)

And then something happened. Perhaps he realised that his last album had been devoid of eccentricity (it hadn’t, it was just more nuanced), clear of the crazy and the comic. Boy did he make up for it on Midnight Vultures. To pick one track pains me; I see it as a “perfect album” whereby each track is as brilliant as the next. From the funk of ‘Sexx Laws’, to the dark pop of ‘Nicotine & Gravy’, and the masterful hip-hop on ‘Hollywood Freaks’, one could be forgiven for thinking that the album was a confusing mix of bonkers – too tongue-in-cheek, too mixed. But beneath his utterances of ‘Christmas in July’, ‘automatic bazooti’ and ‘mixing business with leather’, there are some more serious subjects, like his feelings of bewilderment towards the unwritten rules of sex, as well as feelings of wanting everything at once: ‘I wanna get with you (oh girl) / and your sister / I think her name’s Debra’. Other notable tracks: the whole album.

7) Lost Cause – Sea Change (2002)

It took him three years to recover from the crazy hoo-ha of Midnight vultures. After a bad break-up, Beck finally wrote the acoustic album that people had been yearning for. It was so sad people probably wished they hadn’t, but it nonetheless shot Beck into fame, and established him as one of the leading singer-songwriters of his time. From beginning to end it feels bright and simultaneously heartbreaking. Once again, to take one track out of the album is almost a travesty, but ‘Lost Cause’ seems to encapsulate all his sorrow, as he, like a Jeff Smith fighting insurmountable forces, beats away at a wall nonetheless. The song doesn’t literally sound like Beck beating a wall, although I’m sure that’d sound great too. Other notable tracks: ‘Paper Tiger’, ‘Side Of The Road’.

8) E-Pro – Guero (2005)

After what must have been a pretty depressing couple of years touring Sea Change, Beck hit back with another indie-rock hip-hop album with sing-a-long choruses and dry wit abound. ‘E-Pro’ was his first chart-topper since ‘Loser’ and, in popular opinion, Beck was back doing what he did best. ‘Hell yes’ came with the sardonic, “Look at me, I’m having so much fun” style of lyrics, it’s title buying into this game. While the album is arguably too long, losing finesse towards its end, it’s still a must listen for those delving into the Beck Hansen pool of handsome. Other notable tracks: ‘Black Tambourine’, ‘Hell yes’, and ‘Que onda guero’ which starts with some sensational lyrics.

9) Say Goodbye – Morning Phase (2014)

But alas, sadness lingers, and linger it did. Morning Phase wasn’t quite as desolate as its progenitor — the wound was less fresh — but it still explored all that one might expect from a bad break-up. God we love a good break-up album, don’t we? The album was also mired in controversy when it won a Grammy, with a hilarious Mr West taking to the stage to protest that Beyoncë should have won. Meh, I’m not sure she should have, but you’re probably aware of where my allegiances stand at this stage. Other notable tracks: ‘Blackbird Chain’, ‘Waking Light’ and ‘Morning’.

10) Wow – Colours (2017)

This last track is a difficult one to choose for a number of reasons, not least because it signifies the end of a fairly compromising list, but because it is one that I loved when it was a single, and started to question after 2017’s Colours was released. ‘Wow’, to me, is a perfect piece of pop satire with a video to match. Riding off the rather glib YOLO outlook, it critiques modern pop music by holding a mirror up to itself — “It’s your life, your life / live it once, can’t live it twice”. The video shows wild horses running free, as well as the man himself dancing in a concrete-filled shot of a highway intersection. And yet, the rest of Colours followed suit, in turn, making me think that either the whole album is a two-fingers up to pop music, or that Beck just felt like doing a pop album. Either way, it’s not his most inventive piece of work to say the least.