Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Totally Not Thurston

Artist: Beck
Albums: Mellow Gold; One Foot In the Grave; Stereopathetic Soul Manure; Odelay; Midnite Vultures; Guero
Source: Promo (MG); from JP (1Ft); Bought new (SSM, MV, Guero); Bought used (Odelay)

Right off the bat I thought Beck was great. The thing I wasn't so sure about was whether he existed or not. When "Loser" hit MTV and radio in 1994, all the sounds and images led me (and a few other people I know) to the conclusion that this "Beck" was a jokey Thurston Moore solo side-project. In fact, the only thing that finally convinced me that this was not the case was...well, one night they were on MTV together, side by side. Turned out Beck was way too short to be Thurston.

But forgive a guy for having conspiracy theories about Beck. He's been around--and accepted--long enough that it's easy to forget that when he hit the scene, a guy mashing up rock and folk and rap and blues and four-track noise was downright weird. "Loser" was catchy and mysterious all at once, so far removed from anything that was happening at the moment that it made more sense that an established boundary-smasher like Thurston was behind it, rather than an actual new talent.

I even kind of find myself wanting to use a word like "visionary" here, but in the end Beck undercuts himself too much to allow such a thing. For every bit of groundbreaking he's done (Odelay might, in fact, be the Dust Brothers production that trumps Paul's Boutique), there's a one-note joke like "Satan Gave Me a Taco" (from Stereopathetic Soul Manure) or the too-much-like-Prince-to-not-be-Prince vibe of Midnite Vultures. All of which, in their own very different ways, are deeply excellent and a lot of fun to listen to.

No, the thing about Beck is that he just might be a little too talented. The twisted folkie is just as convincing as the white-bread hip-hopper, and the bent party anthems are just as affecting as the soulful tunesmithing. Depending on where in the catalogue you drop in, you might think Beck is a false front for any number of artists: Thurston, Prince, the Beasties, Lou Barlow, Hank Williams' ghost...anyone whose sound is a little too established to always stay in their pigeonholes, but who's also a little too talented to just stay in one zone all the time.

All of which makes Beck a real keeper in the evolving narrative of popular music, and also makes him a little difficult to keep in your head--it's hard to exactly be "in the mood to listen to Beck" when that can mean pretty much any mood you're likely to have. But that also means Beck's kind of always right there for you, with all the flavors on tap and a loose-limbed tendency to mix up the colors.

SISOSIG? I kind of have the feeling that The Beck Story isn't even halfway through. Listening to these albums in chronological order is more disorienting than suggestive of any kind of arc. But that's also kind of what makes them so compelling--it's all in there, marching forward with wild abandon and a refusal to acknowledge the hegemony of genre--and it's all Beck at the same time. I keep hearing new stuff in a lot of these discs (not so much the very early recordings, when he had more limitations to yoke him) and expect to hear more still. I do, finally, believe in Beck and think these discs are all keepers.


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