I’m surprised Robert Christgau had absolutely nothing to say about this one, other than offering “Walls” was a choice cut (great strings on that one). It’s Beck’s finest album in a long time – and considering how unmoved I am by Beck’s plight and Nigel Godrich trying to make him Radiohead (Sea Changes) – I can make that statement broader: it’s Beck’s finest album of that decade.
That being said, it’s not perfect. Beck’s never been the finest melodist (which is why his 90s stuff is superior to me than his 00s output where he’s trying hard to be taken as a serious artist after starting off as anything but), and on much of the last half of the album, he doesn’t even try to change that view. Closer “Volcano” gets a lot of attention, but to me, it’s tied for the worst track here. The melodic bass backdrop is easily the album’s best, but Danger Mouse uses these unconventional drums (a good thing) (scratches and clicks) whose novelty and how loudly their presented detract from the other elements (a bad thing). It’s also 4 minutes of that noise, which, on an album of mostly concise songs, feels like a long time. “Soul of a Man” is the other, whose hard rock riff gets boring even before the 2-and-a-half-minute song finishes, and Danger Mouse, who adds – ahem – modern touches almost everywhere else (ie. the blips and bloops of “Modern Guilt”), is nowhere to be seen. Finally, Beck bothers to add wordless backing vocals (“Ohhh”’s) to more than half the album, and not only do they feel like they’re just cluttering tracks (ie. “Gamma Ray”), they get annoying after a while.
To the good stuff, then. The falsetto-ed “If I wake up and see my maker coming” on opener “Orphans” is easily the best hook Beck has to his name (so catchy, in fact, that I was absolutely bewildered on learning that it only happens once in that song but drilled into my head right after), and while he described “Loser” as “surfing in some oil spillage” in an interview with Thurston Moore, the guitar on “Gamma Ray” even better captures that feeling (also having another solid hook didn’t hurt). He’s never been so emotionally arresting as he is on “Chemtrails.” His voice is nearly drowned out by drums (more on that later) and somehow resonating more because of it in the repeated, “So many people / Where do they go?” You can practically see a fast-forwarded animation of him standing still in a room and a blur of his ‘friends’ move around him. But unlikeSea Changes, “Chemtrails” actually wants to rebel against the depression! For example, after the track fades out, it fights its way back onto the scene for the most exciting 30 seconds on the entire album. On that note, the drums, whether organic (ie. “Orphans,” “Chemtrails,” or the bossa nova ones that power the throwback/throwaway “Modern Guilt”) or otherwise (ie. the “drum ‘n’ bass lullaby” of “Replica,” words courtesy of Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal) all smack of life. I can’t tell if that’s a result of Danger Mouse’s production of Beck’s own, but considering I didn’t hear similar results on other Beck-co-produced albums, I think it’s safe to say we can thank the former.
To close, cokemachineglow’s Conrad Amenta had this to say about Modern Guilt’s lyrical themes, I’ve seen some suggest that this album […] is ‘political.’ All I can say about this supposedly Situationist cry-to-arms is that it’s mildly disappointed at the situation us Western kids finds ourselves in at best and thoroughly defeated by it at worst. None of this makes the music any less enjoyable to listen to. The concept of a modern type of guilt is probably supposed to imply the effortlessly achievable comfort and depressed humility with which much of the album is sung. Perhaps ironically, the best way to enjoy Modern Guilt is with blinders on to this sort of temporal perspective.”