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Here's the end of the world as Beck knows it ...

Byline: Craig S. Semon


Modern Guilt

Beck (Geffen)

* * *

Beck Hansen (better known simply as Beck) might not be humanity's best hope for survival but, possibly, humanity's last hope for pop smarts when humanity needs it the most.

Then again, this is Beck we're talking about, the prog-rock prankster, pop's premier cut-and-paste chameleon who changes moods and musical styles more times than some people change their underwear.

To say things are pretty bleak on Beck's latest platter du jour would be a gross understatement. The man who broke onto the music scene with the slacker anthem "Loser" realizes that humanity is losing and it's just a matter of time when we are all completely done for. Radiation sickness, wacky weather, gaping ozone holes, incoming casualties, unanswered prayers and the old reliable, down-in-the-dumps depression are some of the themes explored on Beck's latest. And that's the upbeat stuff.

With the help of producer Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse and one half of Gnarls Barkley), "Modern Guilt" might be the most inviting batch of end-of-the-world opuses ever served up to an increasing paranoia-growing populace already worried and worn out from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, high gas prices, the Iraqi War, "American Idol" and Academy Award winner Al Gore.

Beck feels like a castaway in the human race, which is becoming increasingly less human, on the lo-fi apocalyptical ditty "Orphans." On the first of several laments for a generation that has lost its way, Beck speaks out for the downtrodden masses longing to be loved or destroyed, whatever mercifully comes first. Breaking out of an ominous mix of thump-heavy bass and clattering drums, Beck sheds a momentary light with his chimy acoustic guitars and warmly cooing vocals.

One needs more than heavy-duty sunblock for protection from the upcoming environmental disaster on "Gamma Ray." On arguably the snappiest song ever recorded about global warming, Beck forecasts melting ice caps, devastating hurricanes, smokestack lighting and scorching heat waves. And, somehow, he makes a Biblical proportion shake and bake sound like a clambake. With cool surf guitars and sun-drenched harmonies, Beck delivers a "Little Deuce Coup" for the damned.

Inspired by the conspiracy theory that the trails seen behind some aircraft are high-altitude spraying of chemicals for some secret (and nefarious) purpose, "Chemtrails" is one-part psychedelic pop and one-part trippy paranoia. On this great song (but bizarre choice for a leadoff single), Beck watches fighter jets flying off into the wild blue yonder while seas are littered with bloated corpses. With utter hopelessness and deep sorrow in his tortured falsetto, an overwhelmed Beck urges, "Down by the sea/So many people/They're already drowned/You and me/Watching a sea/full of people/Try not to drown." Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water. On this Pink Floyd-meets-Beach Boys opus, Beck's haunting voice is shrouded in a hallucinatory mix of choppy guitars, rumbling drum beats, snarling bass lines and sparse icy piano notes.

Beck carries the burden of the world's sins on the title track, "Modern Guilt." Sounding more like Travis Bickle than Jesus Christ, Beck ponders, "I feel uptight when I walk in the city/ I feel so cold when I'm at home/Feels like everything's starting to hit me/I lost my bearings ten minutes ago." With it's breezy, mid-tempo shuffle to accompany his every anxiety-filled steps, Beck has a cool soundtrack for when his mind finally snaps.

If the children of today are the future of tomorrow, Beck feels it's time for civilization to throw in the towel on "Youthless." Disillusioned and disgusted by today's younger generation, Beck scolds, "Your mouth is full of wordless hymns and run-on sentences." Young whippersnappers might not understand his insults, but they can at least groove to the number's breakneck funk.

"Walls" serves up Beck at his pessimistic best. And despite its images of nuclear warheads stacked up in the kitchen like golden griddle cakes and the world crumbling all around you chorus, it's hard not to get into the swing of things of this end-of- the-world blowout.

With skittering beats and chiming marimbas heightening his anxiety, a restless Beck plays with paper dolls and desires to be an honorary Keebler elf on the uncommonly made, uncommonly good "Replica."

He later ponders what makes the soul of a man on, you guessed it, "Soul of a Man." And it turns out the answer is a lot of snarly, sinewy guitar riffs of the Queens of the Stone Age variety.

Beck is suffering from nothing that a nice hot cup of molten lava couldn't cure on the melancholic closer "Volcano." Channeling the ghost of Elliott Smith, while revisiting his own "Sea Change" album, Beck shrugs, "I've been drinking all these tears for so long/All I've got left is the taste of salt in my mouth." Despite being inspired by the tale of a willing human sacrifice, Beck has a rendezvous with an active volcano - not to jump in, just to warm his bones for a while.

So much for your typical fireside chat.

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Title Annotation:ETC.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 20, 2008
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