Jeff Beck doesn’t have a terribly high bar to clear with Loud Hailer. If the past is any indication, he’s likely going to fall into that nice groove of selling a decent amount of copies in the first couple of weeks and may even net another Grammy award for one of the album’s instrumental tracks based, potentially, on name recognition alone. And as with most artists of his age and legacy, as long as he manages to not embarrass himself dramatically, Loud Hailer will be anointed as a raging success.
The credit that the 72-year-old guitarist deserves for this album, though, is not due to his continued existence. Loud Hailer feels like the product of someone wanting to make a contemporary record, someone who is paying close attention to the sounds of modern music and wanting to reflect that in his own work. For the most part, Beck achieves this lofty goal with a bluntness and political fervor that marks it as an unusual but welcome entry in his discography.
The most immediate thrills that Loud Hailer provides is in how ugly a lot of it is. Beck and his new rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg feed their instruments through a cluster of effects pedals that adds a discordance and muddiness throughout. The downstroking melody that drives “Pull It” sounds like the revving of a scooter engine in desperate need of a tuneup, and the solos on the raging “Right Now” evoke a swarm of angry insects.
Beck and Filippo Cimatti’s production works to gives these songs an unflattering sheen as well. Drum tracks are splashy and clipped, and often made to sound as unnatural as possible. The low end feels downright oppressive at times. Even the most pensive tracks, like the graceful instrumental “Edna” and album closer “Shrine”, are given a sour taste through woozy atmospherics and pushing Rosie Bones’ vocals into the red.
In that respect, this is almost like Beck joining up with Vandenberg and Bones’ band, named after the latter’s surname. That group is helped in the studio by Cimatti and carries a similar dissonant quality to its noisy blues rock. But the bluntness of Loud Hailer also serves to amplify the brusque tone of the lyrics throughout. Beck has referred to this collection as his “statement album,” using it to take hardline stances against conservative politicians, the world’s dependency on oil, and his fears for the children of the world.
While knowing that Beck is obviously politically engaged and willing to put his well-known name on public potshots at David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch is welcome, the tone of the lyrics could be Loud Hailer’s biggest failing. The words that Bones wrote and sings often have a punk-like directness to them, though they’re also burdened with an accompanying lack of nuance or poetry. “O.I.L.” spins its wheels on warmed-over “sticky stuff” references and cringing lines like “If you stop me having more/ Well, I’ll tell you, there’ll be war.” The title of opening track “The Revolution Will Be Televised” is well-worn enough without it being used as a platform to chide folks for not being more politically engaged (“Suppose you’d better turn the volume down/ So you can’t hear their plea/ Suppose you’d better change the channel/ Might put the children off their tea”).
The strangest notes, though, are rung in relation to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the resulting upending of the geopolitical landscape. His intention, according to a recent interview, was “to do something positive out of that … because there are so many unanswered questions.” Why he hit on this 15 years later is anybody’s guess, and the result is equally stultifying. In “Thugs Club”, Beck and his proxy Bones choose to dredge up George W. Bush among their list of baddies, despite him being eight years removed from power. And on the centerpiece “The Ballad of the Jersey Wives”, the tone comes disturbingly close to some 9/11 conspiracy theory bullshit: “It all played out like a bad B-movie/ There were holes in the plot and the actors didn’t move me/ You think that I’m mad but I know to my core/ I’ve read the official truth but there’s a truth worth fighting for.”
Beck’s return to the studio after a six-year break is, then, a mixed blessing. The musical edifice that he and his cohorts have built is strong and daringly modern, but they’ve decorated the insides with spray paint and hashtagged sentiments. Best to admire this from the outside lest you get too disappointed with what’s lingering under the surface.
Essential Tracks: “Right Now”, “Shrine”