Ok, let’s be clear before we begin, this is unlikely to be the most objective gig review. The last time he played in England, I giddily proclaimed Beck to be my generation’s David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Prince. Two of those musical heroes have since shuffled off this mortal coil, and whilst I’m sure many would disagree with me, I think I’m going to stick to my characteristic hyperbole. With that in mind, if it’s ok with you, I might stretch my legs a bit and tell you why I think Beck is an artist that should really be bigger than Kanye and Taylor combined. Be warned though, this is the sort of thing the internet acronym TLDR was invented for, so skip to the last few paragraphs if you just want the gig review…
I first heard of Beck, not specifically through Loser like most of the known world – we never had more than the 4 terrestrial channels growing up so no MTV for me – but through the major label debut that featured it; Mellow Gold. Our Price used to do a promotion (in conjunction with Q magazine I think) on new albums they were supporting, where you could buy them risk-free and take them back if you didn’t like them. I used this a lot when I was a kid on a tight budget. I’d have bought it early 1994 and in equal parts it confused and excited me. Loser’s slide acoustic guitar, breakbeat, psych/psycho poetry about termites choking on splinters and cheese whiz (whatever the fuck that is), and the weird chanty Mexican lyric chorus, got you off to a relatively solid start, but then you were switched suddenly into proper full-on country folk rock, albeit with lyrics about a giant dildo crushing the sun. Then you’ve got a good sweary singalong with bubbling guitar and wailing harmonica that transforms back and forth between a BB King/Bo Diddley chug and a squalling guitar that’s actually a kazoo, then someone starts screaming “I ain’t got no soul” whilst still managing to ape The Monkees’s Last Train To Clarksville. This is all within 3 songs. I appreciate it’s not revealing a great deal about his show at The Bournemouth International Centre last Bank Holiday Monday, but it’s a good measure of how pointless it is to try and second guess Beck. He’s a clever dick who does as he pleases, and if you want to get on for the ride, you’re most welcome; it’s a good ride.
Fast forward 24 (24, Wtf?!) years and Beck has just released his 13th studio album Colors (with its Word confusing US spelling). It’s by some way his most consciously commercial and “pop” collection to date. In between there’s been what historians commonly refer to as a “clusterfuck-load” of different styles, incarnations and sounds. Most have been brilliant, and those that didn’t necessarily hit the bullseye more than merit their existence due to a seemingly belligerent refusal to compromise and give the public what they think they want. After each ‘huge’ success (more critical than commercial) he’s virtually u-turned every time.
After the slacker grunge-psych of Mellow Gold came a feelgood cut and paste hip-hop samplefest, nonchalantly proving everyone that levelled one-hit wonder status at him completely wrong. After Odelay, arguably the benchmark that critics still hold him to, he came out with Mutations, a largely acoustic collection of dreamy singer-songwriter folk with the odd splash of Brazilian tropicalia and chamber-pop – this read as his first proper attempt to put out a straight-ahead record of “songs”, and he’s a beautiful straight-ahead songwriter. Obviously after that it’s time to put on purple spandex and fuck about with Pro-tools. Midnite Vultures was a sexed-up splurge of spunky electronic soul-funk. It’s so dense that every time you listen on headphones you’re able to pick out another tiny studio detail, all along though, it keeps its firm auto-asphyxiation stranglehold on its soul. Beck might be studious and meticulous, but there’s feeling in every drop that comes out of the speakers.
Next someone broke Beck’s heart which prompted him to execute the most pronounced about-turn of his career thus far. To call Sea Change “personal” kind of misses the point for me, it was clearly a deeply wounded and reflective person that put these lyrics to melodies, but it’s also probably the most universal he’s ever been. I’ve always believed an invaluable weapon in a songwriter’s arsenal, is a knack for speaking out loud the words that sit dormant in the rest of our heads, for most of his career thus far, Beck had spoken in riddles, hiding behind nonsense lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, he was doing an ace job, and had me well and truly hooked, but it was with the release of Sea Change that I was convinced he was something really special, more 3-dimensional. I know a lot of people who aren’t Beck fans that love this album. It’s beautiful, honest, simple, sad, uplifting and devastating. If you’re feeling down, reach for this one, it gives you a hug and sympathises by sharing the load with you. You’ve probably already gathered it’s also my favourite album by him.
To call Sea Change “personal” kind of misses the point for me, it was clearly a deeply wounded and reflective person that put these lyrics to melodies, but it’s also probably the most universal he’s ever been.
The last time he played in England, I giddily proclaimed Beck to be my generation’s David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Prince. Two of those musical heroes have since shuffled off this mortal coil, and whilst I’m sure many would disagree with me, I think I’m going to stick to my characteristic hyperbole.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that after the cathartic purge of Sea Change, where Beck seemed to exorcise the demons attached to his failed relationship and the ensuing downtime, the next step coincided with a new found love, fatherhood, and a return to the patchwork style he’d skipped since Odelay. Returning along with that album’s stylistic bent were its producers The Dust Brothers‘, inevitably it had the same ramshackle feel as the last record they did together, with ever-changing shades and styles, like a really cool musical jumble sale. Still his highest charting album, Guero led some fans and critics to identify a cyclical nature to his albums, a pattern of moving between high and low, from upbeat to downbeat, but really that was an oversimplification, and relied on the assumption that there were two sides to Beck. This does the artist a massive disservice, and the upcoming sequence of records further disproved it. I think what’s more likely, is that he’s left creatively exhausted after each endeavour. As though he – consciously or unconsciously – picks a lane, begins the journey down that route and squeezes every last drop out of the direction until there’s nothing left, in terms of ideas and energy. He pulls it all together and the resulting piece of work is so comprehensive, that there’s really no other option than to pack up a bag and look for a new destination, in doing so cleansing his musical palate, re-invigorating his creative juices. It’s this willingness, or need, to reinvent that’s resulted in a degree of scepticism being levelled at Beck. As though you can’t trust someone that is good at too many different things, like they can’t ‘mean it, man’. Utter bollocks, the same accusations were made toward Bowie, if it’s too clever, too calculated = it can’t be passionate/heartfelt. I hate the arbitrary rulebook of music, such a hypocritical and miserable way to look at things – it should be ripped up and stuck back together like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards.
There have been three other albums between Guero and last year’s Colors. The first, The Information, wasn’t Sea Change pt 2, it was an interesting and diverse collection of alternative pop. Said like that it sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, it just didn’t blow my head off like each album had previously. There’s some stone cold bangers on there mind, and ‘Think I’m In Love‘ is among his best tunes. Modern Guilt was next, a solid collaboration with zeitgeist producer of the moment Danger Mouse. The recording process for this album apparently was hard work, though you wouldn’t guess it from its economical and smart sounding 60s pop nuggets. In Chemtrails it has what appears to be Beck’s version of ‘Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse‘ by Aphrodite’s Child – an absolute banger – for the modern world. If anything though, this album was a bit glum, serious and maybe a little forced.
Morning Phase which came next didn’t sound forced at all, it sounded beautiful, a return to the atmosphere and country folk vibes of Sea Change, a little more positive, but just as introspective and classic sounding. With lavish strings all over it arranged by his Dad, it was little surprise that it won best album at that year’s Grammies, and even less of a surprise that Beck’s humility and good natured praise left Kanye looking like a tit when the mouthy twat questioned it as a deserving winner.
That brings us up to 2017’s Colors. I’d had my love of the diminutive Los Angelean stoked by Morning Phase and was back to fanboy mode, waiting with baited breath as the forthcoming album saw release dates come and go. We heard a big shiny pop tune first, called ‘Dreams.’ I liked it, not my favourite flavour of Beck, but it was good quality industrial-strength pop. Next came ‘Wow,’ this was more like it. Jumbo 808 kicks and a flute riff in absolutely no hurry whatsoever to go anywhere, at one point the music drops out completely and Beck deadpans “Giddy Up”. I liked Wow.
When the album finally arrived, it was immediately clear that this was a new Beck, something we hadn’t really seen before. Very precise, clean, ‘now’ pop music with one foot in the 80s and one foot in today’s charts. Tellingly co-produced with Greg Kurstin, whose CV featured Lily Allen, Pink and Adele, Beck was going for the jugular. All of this conspired to leave me a bit cold, underwhelmed really if I’m being honest. I listened to the album a couple of times though, I tend to give everything a listen, often out of curiosity as much as appreciation, and I couldn’t deny its quality, it just wasn’t what I personally wanted from Beck. That was ok, there was always the next album. I have to say though, this is one sneaky bloody collection of songs, and that wraps us up nicely. All these years on, and it’s his latest LP that’s surprised me the most. It’s fucking brilliant! Tune after tune rammed with hooks and riffs and big choruses, ‘Dear Life‘ is a Beatlesy highlight, fantastic bar-room piano that’s a little reminiscent of the Vince Guaraldi Trio music from the 60s Peanuts cartoon, punctuated with a spiky lead guitar George Harrison might have dropped in to record one afternoon during the Abbey Road Sessions and finished with a lovely vocal arrangement with about 7 Beck’s, then there’s the aforementioned ‘Wow,’ and a beefed up (like that was even possible) version of first single ‘Dreams.’ The best though was stuck up front and centre with the album’s lead off title track Colors. A proper adrenaline shot mixed with tequila and acid, it’s got panpipes all over it and still sounds mega for fuck’s sake. These are just highlights, the whole album’s excellent, it might take a few listens for a miserable, jaded old bastard like me to get, but it’s worth it, trust me. I regularly say I hate Beck, he creates brilliant music, makes it look easy, seems really happy and humble, and shows no sign of slowing down. I hope he doesn’t, we’ve lost too many musical heroes recently, and important artists seem to be increasingly thin on the ground.
So anyway, this gig. Well, really, it’s two gigs, I went to All Points East in Victoria Park in Hackney on the Sunday and Beck was the penultimate act, sandwiched between Father John Misty and Björk. To say it was the highlight is an understatement. I’ve seen him live a few times, so I sort of knew what to expect, but I wasn’t underwhelmed. The gig the next night at the Bournemouth International Centre was a similar set, there were a couple of other songs thrown in but this was clearly not a loose bunch of songs decided at the last minute, it was a military operation. Precise, exact, well oiled and professional. Ordinarily those adjectives aren’t going to inspire faith in a moving live show, but that’s kind of the point I’ve been driving at through this whole thing. He doesn’t sacrifice joy and feeling to preparation and thought, conversely the show feels like one big party, loads and loads of fun but also silly, out of control, funny, poignant, soulful, cute, all the time absolutely killer tight.
Both shows opened with ‘Devil’s Haircut.’ The monster riff ripped off from a Them song, it was the lead character in Odelay’s vast cast. Here the band rev it up and the bassist adds an awkward moving baseline that adds another dimension. Massive start. Completely unexpectedly he drops into the slinky shoulder shake of ‘Black Tambourine,’ an album track off Guero. I always saw Guero as a black sheep, apparently people know it though and Beck clearly rates it as there’s a ton in the set, probably the most represented album here after his latest. Then we really get going. ‘Mixed Bizness‘ was always gonna be the tune off Midnite Vultures that would travel. Here it gets a huge overhaul, like a body-builder body popping, doing an aerobics session led by James Brown with Jake and Elwood being naughty at the back of the class. We’re now putty in his hands. I won’t detail every song, it’s boring, and to be fair you really should have been there. If you get the chance, go, he’s ace live.
At one point he played ‘Think I’m In Love,’ a lost highlight in a ginormous oeuvre. It has the greatest middle 8 since ‘The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down‘ – one of those that doesn’t last as long as you’d like, just long enough to make your heart lift and your eyes well up. As if he had something to prove, he seamlessly segues from that into the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder’s disco anthem ‘I Feel Love,’ presumably because they share a word in their titles. Weirdly, and pleasingly, it works.
It’s at this point that band fucks off and leaves Beck on his own on the stage with just an acoustic guitar and the mic, he looks quite pleased with himself and you kind of get the feeling this is how he’s most comfortable. After a bit of patter he warms his fingers up with the opening fingerpicked notes of ‘Lost Cause,’ it must just be a muscle exercise though because it’s quickly chucked to one side and he purposefully strums into ‘Debra,’ the epic slow jam from Midnite Vultures, a bit of a curveball cause this is a tune that seemed destined to have electric guitar, fretless bass, wurlitzer and brass or nothing. See? He just wants to confound, loves it. Tipping a very poignant and deliberate cap to his hero Prince, this moves into a few verses of ‘Raspberry Beret.’ Not before he’s paid his dues to one Edgar Wright, who directed his most recent music video and is apparently watching the gig side of stage, he waffles on about the white cliffs of dover and seems in no hurry to get back to the script and no one minds, collectively grinning and going with it, “It’s Beck!”. We’ve been treated and everyone knows it. Time to wrap things up though, best bring out the big guns. The set’s closed with ‘E-Pro,’ still his biggest hit, jumbo drums and bass robbed direct from the Dust Brothers other client The Beastie Boys and their tune ‘So What’cha Want,’ the crowd goes apeshit.
He seamlessly segues from that into the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder disco anthem I Feel Love, presumably because they share a word in their titles. Weirdly, and pleasingly, it works.
The whole band leave the stage after that monster and we all dutifully pretend we think that’s it. The encore is such a weird construct, if you’ve paid fifty quid to see a band, you’d best get the extra right? Nothing worse than a band shuffling off stage and counting five before coming back on though. These guys agree and it’s a full costume change for Mr Hansen. He walks back onstage looking like Buford T Justice and JR Ewing’s cooler younger brother. This might’ve been the moment the new album clicked for me. The glitchy EQ’d beat of ‘Colors‘ starts up, filtered through, building and clearing til it almost reaches full whack, there is a split second drop and the song just explodes, euphoria takes over and we’re all 13 again, pogo-ing and forgetting we’re back at work tomorrow. The normally indecipherable chorus is sung straight live and it’s actually an improvement, a brand new immediate classic in an already overcrowded set.
There’s a destination a little up the road, from the habitations and the towns we know, a place we saw the lights turn low, the jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow. This is just where it’s at, and we all know it. The tune suddenly falls apart though and we all wonder what’s up, quickly picking up the slack Beck begins introducing the band, only rather than just name checking and waiting for appropriate applause, we’re given a snippet of a tune for each member of the team, Bass – Good Times, Guitar – Miss You, Keys – Cars, Backing trio – Once In A Lifetime, Drums – In The Air Tonight, then he buggers about a bit, and plays probably the oldest tune here, ‘One Foot In The Grave,’ again solo, with just a kick drum smashing 4 on the floor and his wheezing percussive harmonica. A little bit of Freddie Mercury call and response and then we’re off again, the beautiful jazzy 7ths of the wurly kick in and we’re gonna finish off ‘Where It’s At‘, a cynic would call it cheesy, I think it might well be what Cheese Whiz is.
The guy’s class, and I did warn you it wasn’t going to be an objective review. There’s a new King Of Pop now, let’s all make the most of it.
Special mentions: Keytars, the same black and white guitar he’s had throughout his entire career, Jason Faulkner, Golden Feelings, Stereopathic Soul Manure, One Foot In The Grave and the many many cover versions, singles and collaborations that have peppered his output which I didn’t have time to refer to and Polka Dots – every good band should look like a band, there’s nothing worse than people on stage performing but looking like they just got off the train.