Beck - Modern Guilt
Since taking a break last year after a prolific stretch that produced 2005's Guero and 2006's The Information, Beck is back - albeit without his travelling troupe of puppets, BOO! However, keen to uphold his reputation as being at the forefront of pop experimentation, he's roped in Dangermouse, one-half of Gnarls Barkley and the cooler/weirder option to call upon when everyone else is using up Timbaland's goods. Modern Guilt then is the result of two masterminds pairing up and seeing what happens when their shared interests in psych-rock, folk, electronic minimalism and orchestration collide.
Lead single Chemtrails is a dreamy slice of Eels-esque pop, with a worryingly pensive Beck painting a picture of drowning people en masse 'down in the sea, swallowed by evil'. Indeed, a lyrical motif of natural disaster - with references to tidal waves, floods and melting icecaps - runs through a series of tracks that are both introspective and socially aware, and contribute to an overall sense of impending doom. Even when in funkier mode, as on a title track that pairs chugging piano with Dangermouse beats, he's worrying about the state of the modern world. Same goes for Youthless, which declares us all as 'helpless' on one of the catchiest choruses of his career whilst managing to combine spacy synth effects, wordy verses and cello into the stuttering psychedelic highlight at the album's centre. This is where the partnership of two experimental pop mavericks produces something truly memorable where other tracks fall just short; although Walls is a decent stab at providing Beck with his very own Crazy or Smiley Faces, its sample-heavy future-soul tries too hard and one imagines Cee-Lo would be more suited to providing the vocal.
Elsewhere, as with any Beck album, there is enough going on for it never to be boring. Replica's string-heavy existential whimsy is made all the more eccentric by a frenzied drum 'n' bass groundwork. Gamma Ray and Profanity Prayers are both playful and sound like what one would imagine Beck should be sounding like in 2008. Meanwhile, everyone's favourite feline Chan Marshall contributes backing vocals on both Orphans and Walls; fans of the Cat shouldn't get too excited though, as this is the kind of understated cameo only those who read the sleeve notes will be aware of.
Benefiting from a lean running time of just over 30 minutes, whereas previous Beck albums have often gone for proggy indulgence, Modern Guilt is no masterpiece but is rather a solid album from one of today's musical icons. The fact that it ends with the shimmering beauty of Volcano, a lyrically superior cut where our bruised hero announces that he is 'tired of evil and all that it feeds' over washes of choir-like backing vocals, is enough for any fan to be sure that this is a fitting enough contribution - for now, at least - to an overall legacy that will no doubt be astounding.