BECK > Modern Guilt

It’s hard to know what’s making Beck more miserable: the sorry state of civilization and our efforts to hasten our own doom, or his personal life. The only conclusion one can draw from a close examination of the lyrics on Modern Guilt is that it’s all one big downward spiral; he’s apparently disintegrating from the inside while the world around him does the same.

Label: DGC/UNIVERSAL
Rating: ★★★½☆
It’s hard to know what’s making Beck more miserable: the sorry state of civilization and our efforts to hasten our own doom, or his personal life. The only conclusion one can draw from a close examination of the lyrics on Modern Guilt is that it’s all one big downward spiral; he’s apparently disintegrating from the inside while the world around him does the same.

But this is no mournful Sea Change, no “I’ll get over you someday.” The tone of Modern Guilt is one of resignation, mixed with fear and anxiety. This time around, the problems Beck seems to be singing about aren’t the kinds that go away. There’s not even an insistently hummable “Girl” or “Think I’m in Love” to leaven his heavy heart, much less the cleverly nonsensical sass or exuberant party vibe of his 1990s output.

While it has plenty of musically upbeat moments (particularly “Gamma Ray” and the title song), Modern Guilt also has the jitteriness of a Bay of Pigs standoff, with co-producer Danger Mouse’s staccato beats, songs that end mid-note, thick, dread-inducing bass lines and heavy piano chords underscoring existential confusion, conspiracy theories (look up “chemtrails”) and everywhere, the imagery of Armageddon. Morality and mortality, dressed in incongruously sunny ‘60s pop allusions to the Beach Boys, girl groups, psychedelia and even Sgt. Pepper’s strings, with airy vocals, some by Chan Marshall (Cat Power), floating in and out like a wispy, and occasionally funky, ghost.

None of this should be surprising, given the unfortunate realities of the moment: an administration led by an ass; an ill-conceived war; “these ice caps melting” (“Gamma Ray”); calamities galore; and more people than the earth can sustain. Modern guilt, indeed.

But it’s easy to wonder whether songs like “Walls” and “Replicas” aren’t really about a more personal subject, like, say, a failing marriage? One could interpret a line like “you got warheads stacked in the kitchen” as a stockpile of topics to argue about. That’s especially true if it’s tallied with “I can’t tell if it’s you or me driving us into the ground” and “I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased, but I still want to please you,” from “Volcano,” which also has the scarily beautiful couplet, “I heard of that Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano/was she trying to make it back, back into the womb of the world?”

Then again, maybe Beck would be highly amused by these theories; heck, the lyric “trying to make sense of what they call wisdom” just might have to do with a bunch of critics sitting around psychoanalyzing his work (which, by the way, still captivates with its synth- and loop-laden rhythms and wordplay). No, it won’t be your favorite Beck album, but regardless of his message, his lyrics are still brilliant and always original (except for “Soul of a Man,” which references Blind Willie Johnson). And this time, it wraps in a short 34 minutes, with the dirge-like rhythm and angelic chorus of “Volcano.” An almost soothing, hypnotic soundscape, this one matches its lyrics, right up to the abrupt end, which leaves Beck standing close to the womb of the world-or the edge of a really big abyss.