There is an enigma that is Beck. With every album released, he’s ventured into territories well traveled by others, yet clearly new to him, and returned with a recording that pushes the envelope of the music industry while simultaneously redefining what we know and love as Beck. From the folk-and-blues-tinged sounds on One Foot in The Grave, Mutations and the experimentation-laden Stereopathic Soulmanure, to the hits of “Loser” on his major label debut Mellow Gold, “Where It’s At” off Odelay and the radio-friendly “Sex Laws” on Midnite Vultures, Beck continues to avoid, seemingly with rare ease, being pigeonholed in any way.
Coming out this fall is another mystery Beck release to add to the master list. As yet unnamed, the recording will surely push the sound boundary once again. And to help reinforce that image, the ever-mutating Beck is now on a tour that finds him in the solo seat—as opposed to the last few rounds, where he’s been big, bad and bold, often sporting pink denim and fringes, playing the large tunes of Midnite Vultures.
Using the wide musical pastures of the times before him is one way he avoids those doldrums snares of the industry. “I think everybody falls into formulaic traps. But I think I’m pretty good at eluding them,” says Beck. “With music, it’s an opportunity to express something that’s kind of loose and unstructured. I’m a big believer that tradition in rock, funk, soul and rap just liberates—it really disregards what’s appropriate.”
Whereas the inspiration for Midnite did reside within the mix of hip-hop and R&B, the new record seems to dwell somewhere between European imports like Air and down-home songwriters like Leonard Cohen. “Paper Tiger” starts out with a very mellow atmosphere and quickly escalates into a menagerie of sound driven by orchestration and grounded in a solid bass and drumbeat. Other tracks like “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause” are heavily anchored in an acoustic melodic feel. Apparent is typical Beck complexity: Even the simplest songs have layers of atmosphere and progressive development that add intrinsically to the overall structure and character of his sound.
Even though he is often appropriately touted as being on the verge of the experimental, Beck sees it somewhat differently. “I’m barely on the tip of the edge because my music is almost Top 40 compared to most of the music you would find in a good independent record store. It may be pretty far-out for somebody who doesn’t really investigate what is going on in music, but there is some really out-there stuff that is very cool. What I’m doing is mostly pop music—it’s not that highfalutin.”
No matter where the industry seems to be heading, Beck seems determined to push ahead in his own direction. “I’m finding myself kind of unplugging from a lot of the popular music. I look to the hip-hop world. They’re the only ones that keep moving forward, where there is any semblance of experimentation and forward-thinking. I guess the rock’s just going to get heavier and the pop’s just going to get poppier.
“There’s a lot of product right now, there isn’t a lot of true art, or a lot of soul or personality. So hopefully, somebody will come along and be a good conscience-bearer the way maybe the Sex Pistols or the Stones or Nirvana did; you know, those kind of bands that made everybody realize that, ‘Alright, I have to step up to the plate and come up with something real, I can’t just go make formula music.’”
After a long life of avoiding a pre-prescribed sound and creating more pieces for the overall puzzle, Beck can only see himself, somewhat comfortably, in one place when he’s old and gray sitting on a porch somewhere. “I will probably go back to what I was playing when I was 15, which is what I always tend to come back to, old-time music or traditional folk music. I’m sure at that point, things will be so digital and connected that I’ll want to disconnect. Just play a piece of wood and hit a string—get back to something elemental.”