Song: “Whiskeyclone, Hotel 1997” from Mellow Gold (1994)
There’s something bluesy, folksy, even devotional about “Whiskeyclone, Hotel 1997”, as if Beck wrote it in a rundown room off the highway, surrounded by chirping cartoon birds — which, I suppose, is the first hint that not everything here is as by-the-book as it might at first seem. The slowly loping track rumbles and rambles, mesmeric in its simplicity, but that only lets Beck’s weird, anti-folk push hide in plain sight. Once you pay attention, the honeyed words that tumble out of Beck’s mouth reveal themselves to be far stranger than they might seem, like approaching a mirror that shows a beautiful version of yourself, only to look closer and see the scars you never knew you had. “Rattlesnake on the ceiling/ Gunpowder on my sleeve/ I will live here forever,” he intones, a decided imagistic twist away from traditional folk, though using some of the same old Western signs and symbols. His woozy, clenched-jaw vowels take repudiation to new heights, hitting on existential uncertainty and nostalgic idealism. It’s actually grounded on much more: love, loss, and the youthful condition of American psyche, all captured to haunting effect. “I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone,” he sings on the chorus, like folk that goes down smooth and only makes you think about the sad reality after you’re done swooning.
Song: “Loser” from Mellow Gold (1994)
The listeners who knew of Beck during Golden Feelings and Stereopathetic Soulmanure, his earliest records, knew this was a man who wasn’t concerned with traditional lyrics or, for that matter, making them sound sweet. He fell in love with the anti-folk scene in New York’s Lower East Side but then ditched it to return to Silver Lake in Los Angeles where, thanks to a record producer for Rap-A-Lot Records, he became smitten with hip-hop. The two worked on a slide-guitar demo that became “Loser”, but he set it aside, releasing it as a standalone single since it didn’t fit beside his other songs. Sitar swirls in the air, blues guitar belches, and percussion sloshes lazily on “Loser”. It’s a bizarre combination of sounds, but Beck found a way to make it memorable, an anti-pop song that’s catchy at its core. Beck’s deadpan delivery raps about his lack of rapping skills, a slew of nonsensical words making it hilarious to all, and yet that chorus — “Soy un perdedor/ I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” — became an anthem for stoners, slackers, and nerds alike. As bizarre as it is, the song found its way onto modern rock radio and quickly to the ears of Geffen Records who signed Beck for a major-label record deal immediately after. So goes the Mellow Gold opener and, in turn, thousands of people’s introduction to Beck.
Song: “Devil’s Haircut” from Odelay (1996)
“Devil’s Haircut” was astonishingly predictive of future ‘90s trends: new beat, wiry, hyper chords, and mumbled psychedelia — it’s all there in these rubbery, winding grooves. Injecting a welcome dose of Beck glamour into rock and roll revival, he threw down the grit with a thematically wider strain of boiling-point alt rock and a charming split-personality battle between his artsy flounce and bad-boy blues. There’s something grotesque going on in his almost stream-of-consciousness flow (“bleeding noses” and “leprous faces” are rough enough, but what are “garbage man trees”?!), all slowly simmering until the kettle that is Beck finally starts whistling and the “Devil’s haircut/ In my mind” hook gets a little extra growl. This is of the grunge era, perfect for the radio, and yet somehow totally bizarre and disorienting, all at the same time.
Song: “Where It’s At” from Odelay (1996)
A surge of patchwork, funked-out grooves freewheel over a carnival collage of unusual samples. “Where It’s At”, astonishing in both its vision and production, best amplifies Beck’s satisfying stylistic pile-ups. Beguiling and slightly bemused, it finds inspiration in sources as bizarre as a 1969 sex education album titled Sex for Teens (Where It’s At), a quick name-check of the musician Gary Wilson (“Passing the dutchie from coast to coast/ Like my man Gary Wilson who rocks the most”), and a demodulated bellow of Mantronix’s electronic “Needle to the Groove”. The variety of sounds is staggering, like a gonzo attack: from huge jazz percussion to hip-hop, rock, pop, and spoken word lyrics, Beck’s voice stitches the giddy goulash together.
Play That Funky Music
Song: “Sexx Laws” from Midnite Vultures (1999)
See Beck live and you’ll immediately wish you were better at dancing. The guy knows how to bust a move, but, to be fair, he better if he’s going to roll out as many funk-based songs as he has. On his seventh album, Midnite Vultures, Beck keeps the tempo up and chases after some of the best bass parts pinned to his name to date. “Sexx Laws” introduces this era with unapologetic gaudiness. If the horn fanfare wasn’t an explanatory introduction, the song wields a ’70s bassline that scampers around the neck, “Tighten Up”-style drums, and pitch-climbing screams, eventually bringing a banjo duel into the mix because, no, Beck didn’t plan on giving you a break to catch your breath. Perhaps that’s what he does best. When Beck wants to dance, he wants to keep the spiritedness at full blast, and “Sexx Laws” upholds that unwritten promise in the best of ways. Now, who gets to be his chaperone at the halfway home?
Click ahead for the second half of Beck in 10 Songs.