In a previous post about change and growth of a band we discussed the career of Talking Heads. I thought it would be interesting to look at another example of someone who has exhibited a great deal of change during their career. This time we’re going to go through some of the music of Beck. There is one big difference between those artists right from the beginning. That difference is working in a band with other musicians versus working as a solo artist. Beck, as a solo artist, worked with whoever he felt like collaborating with from album to album, even song to song. There’s a lot of freedom in working that way. First, you are really the final (maybe only) person who decides what your songs will sound like. Second, without the necessity of working in a band where you’re trying to keep everyone engaged and happy you can pretty much record any style you want. You are also able to bring in musicians who have a vast array of influences and abilities. The ‘down side’, if you want to call it that, is that all the work and creative idea construction falls solely on you. You can pick ideas from a variety of collaborators, but in the end, it’s your name and reputation on the line every time you put out music. You definitely have to have a strong sense of self to work in this fashion.
Beck had been performing as a solo artist beginning in his teenage years. In some ways he lived the life of a busker, travelling between the coasts and becoming involved in various folk and conceptual art scenes that interested him. His performances could be ‘eventful’ as he would make up songs on the spot if the audience wasn’t paying attention. Or wear strange costumes and set his guitar on fire. Again, being a solo artist allows you to take any chance you want. You’re not affecting the careers or lives of the other musicians who may also be close friends.
Although he released and handed out cassettes of his music (later made in to albums after he became successful) ‘Loser’ was the flash point that began his career in earnest. An amazing aggregation of folk, hip hop and everything in between it was not expected to be a hit, but the public really makes this decision for you. Add in a crazy, cut and paste video and the world was introduced to Beck. I’m not sure how many people haven’t seen this video, but the freewheeling joy of it amazes me to this day. In the long run, it became the anchor of his first album, ‘Mellow Gold’. In case you’re wondering about the first line of the chorus, ‘Soy un perdedor’ literally means ‘I’m a Loser’ in Spanish.
Beck did release another album called ‘One Foot In The Grave’ before his next major album, ‘Odelay’. ‘Odelay’ sits in my album collection as one of my favorite albums of all time. It had several ‘hit’ songs, but the album sticks with me as I always listen to it front to back, there’s not a song that I would think of skipping through. Musically, what category does it really fit in to? I’m picking ‘Devil’s Haircut’ as the song from this album. There’s great sounding drums, a bass part that has a riff that holds everything together and sits as the main theme that the other music works around or copies. A lot of the rest is studio sampling magic. It almost sounds as if random sounds are thrown in. But they’re not random. Try it some time – fitting in the right sound at the right time is an art. Then there’s the lyrics, strange phrases that act as images floating in your head. Do they have an overall meaning? Maybe – whatever you want.
After the studio production heavy ‘Odelay’, Beck put out a quick album titled ‘Mutations’. It was meant to be the opposite of the production style of ‘Odelay’, more live recording of the players. This was not an album that ever became a big public recording. I think that this again is a benefit of being solo versus being in a band. When you take chances it’s all on you, you don’t have to worry about how decisions could affect the other band members. The song ‘Cold Brains’ feels like psychedelic folk, much more like a full formal band.
After ‘Mutations’, Beck released ‘Midnite Vultures’. In some ways this returns to the studio production feel of ‘Odelay’ except I always felt there was a whole lot more funk going on. The song I’m choosing from this album is ‘Peaches And Cream’. It always reminds me of a somewhat warped mirror version of a Prince song, right down to the falsetto delivery of the vocals. Just when you think you can grab on to it as a straight forward funk song, there’s a noise guitar or odd keyboard/sound sample to throw a monkey wrench in to the flow. Even though it feels like a trip back towards ‘Odelay’, it still takes a lot of steps in to new territory throughout the album.
‘Midnite Vultures’ was followed by a very different style of music on the album ‘Sea Change’. The tracks are anchored by acoustic guitar and relatively straight forward lyrics. For an artist who had attained his level of success, this could be a big risk. Beck had built a brand on strange, funky studio experiments. Breaking this down to acoustic songs with more personal lyrics was a risk. ‘Lost Cause’ is acoustic guitar, simple hi hat drums and some string sounds in the background. It definitely centers on the vocals and lyrics. Where most of his previous work had been upbeat and odd, ‘Lost Cause’ and the other songs on ‘Sea Change’ had that feeling of sadness and melancholy. This type of change is where you find the true genius of the best artists as Beck pulled off this change and still delivered songs that could touch people emotionally.
Beck’s next album, ‘Guero’, returned to the style exhibited on ‘Odelay’. There’s a lot of studio production work and sampling. He also worked with a variety of producers when putting the album together. Our selection for this album ‘E-Pro’ has a lot of parts that grab me. It certainly indulges my love of cracking, fuzzed out guitar. The drum beat drives everything as you never feel a let down when the song moves just to the drum beat and vocals. Again, if you listen to all the parts it seems like it would be simple to put a song like this together especially where there’s just drums and vocals. One sign of genius to me is taking something that’s actually pretty difficult and making it look simple. I also really like the video for the song. The movement between animation and reality is in constant motion, just like the song.
The next album was titled ‘The Information’. The song I picked from this album is titled ‘Think I’m In Love’. To me it sounds like a more straight forward indie rock style song. As always, you can certainly tell it’s Beck by the little flourishes that are thrown in throughout the song as well as his distinctive vocals. One thing I’ve always liked in Beck’s music is his elevation of bass in his songs to where it is often the big rhythmic and/or melodic hook. There’s a really nice break in the middle of the song which adds acoustic guitars as well as keyboards/strings. He combines many things he does well here, keeping a danceable beat moving along with vocals that act as another rhythm part. At this point in his career he had a large library of prior styles and ideas to choose from.
On the album ‘Modern Guilt’, Beck continued to mine the vast array of different styles he had previously used. ‘Chemtrails’ fits in to the neo-psychedelia mold. As I’ve gone through his albums for this post I’m amazed at the variety of styles that I usually touch in the Grapevine series that he hits in his albums. All of his music, while having one foot in a variety of styles depending on the song tend to keep a piece of his own unique vision in them as well. One of ‘Chemtrails’ stand outs is the great live drums in the song. It also feels like the recording is a full band playing live.
For the album ‘Morning Phase’ we return to more acoustic, introspective song writing. ‘Blue Moon’ has acoustic guitar and piano built in to a more standard song style. Lots of reverb on the vocals and really nice backing vocals fill in much of the space. With an amazing encyclopedia of styles and songs at his fingertips, Beck continues to try any type of music that suits his fancy at the time. It’s really unusual for any artist to be able to put out music that fits his current mood and still remain successful both commercially and artistically. He’s released two albums since ‘Morning Phase’, ‘Colors’ and ‘Hyperspace’. For all his success, I think he’s still underappreciated for the wide range of remarkable material he’s released from ‘Loser’ in 1994 to the present day. That’s a long time to be able to continually change, experiment and grow as an artist. Hopefully He’ll continue for many more years.