Genre: Alternative / “Indie”
Release Date: November 23, 1999
Producer: Beck Hansen, Tony Hoffer, Mickey Petralia, The Dust Brothers
A stage name. Intentional misspellings. More oversaturated neon colors than a 80’s nightclub. And worst of all, the prominent depiction of tight leather pants…pink ones, I might add. Yep, I think it’s safe to say this album’s cover art couldn’t make me want to listen to the music less if it were covered in thorns and had a shrieking, carnivorous maw. But by no means was that going to prevent me from giving it a decent and equitable shake to the best of my ability. Turns out, however, the cover’s aesthetic actually does point to an attribute of the music that I so greatly fear: overt pretentiousness.
Now, before you decide to force-feed me my own words, I should note that this is my first exploration into the musical enigma known as Beck. From what I could initially gather, the man is some sort of alt-rock idol, and he clearly possesses the eccentricity to receive such a nomination. Alas, idiosyncrasy does not a great musician make, at least not by itself. So I walked into Midnite Vultures, purportedly one the most upbeat Beck releases, expecting bizarre genre transfusions, liberal sampling, and lots of electronica influences. What I didn’t expect was for all of this to be true, but not at all more engaging for the efforts. In fact, for all this man does to keep the wool over my eyes from start to finish, Midnite Vultures is unbelievably shallow.
Many would claim Beck’s style isn’t too readily defined, but I’ve got one word to do just that: schizophrenic. Indeed, so insistent is he to mix so many different genres and instruments under a single album that whatever magical recipe he could have created is quickly soured. Ironically, the core traits of each track – tempo, tone, and even length – don’t vary much at all, so we are forced to rely on his cheap tricks and gimmicks just to keep pace. Take the starting track Sexx Laws for instance; it kicks off in a much more engaging manner than most of the other songs by mixing together repeating keyboards with a soul-flavored jazz ensemble, but repetition already starts to sink in by the bridge and my attention starts to wane off accordingly. That’s when, from seemingly no logical location in space or time, a full-blown banjo riff kicks in. Raised eyebrows not-withstanding, the cocktail of soul and bluegrass just doesn’t flow or make sense…but it’s here anyway, because Beck said so. And it’s only one of many “WTF?” moments that randomly pepper the album, from the laugh-worthy beat-boxing in Pressure Zone to the sudden appearance of below-average hip-hop in Hollywood Freaks. Yeah, it’s great to be diverse, but such a trait must be managed and controlled, not splattered all about like the paint on a monkey’s self-portrait.
And on the subject of inconsistency and incompetence, we come to Beck’s lyrical capabilities, which is indeed where the aforementioned pretentiousness is showcased to a spit-shine polish. I truly went into this album perceiving Beck as a potentially intelligent individual, but from his music I would guess that he’s either very confused about the way the English language works or he advertently has his face crammed right up where-the-sun-don’t-shine. To put it bluntly, they defy reason and intellect in favor of a working rhyme scheme, something that is usually associated with much more mainstream acts than this guy. The result is that any chance of comprehending them from a listener’s point of view is locked up, caged away, and sealed within a cube of building bricks bathed in cement. The first verse from Nicotine and Gravy, for example, sounds like it could be the arrangement of lines from other random songs that in no way relate: “I'll be your chauffeur on a midnight drive / It takes a miracle just to survive / Buried animals call your name / You keep on sleeping through the poignant rain”. What?! Please, someone inform me if you can find any lucid meaning to that jargon. Then, by contrast, you have a song like Mixed Bizness (what did I say about intentional misspellings, huh?), that has “linear” and “dull” written all over it. In other words, it’s a single, and you’ve actually probably heard it before; I know I did. Sadly, it’s also a syrupy, mindless rant about dancing and sex, which is hardly new. Between these two extremes, it’s hard to walk away from this album feeling any sort of emotion, almost like an hour-long elevator ride.
Suffice it to say – and this really should go without saying at all – there will always be an audience for that sort of thing, who will find what I see as superficial to be brilliance instead. And indeed, if you’re looking for an album that carries such a multitude of styles under one roof, you might just have the key that unlocks this album’s potential. Sadly, I couldn’t even lockpick the frickin’ door to said potential because I was too distracted by generic song structures dotted with conceptual and lyrical inconsistencies. I’m sure that in between his song-writing sessions that involve a combination of liberal drug-use and smashing his head against a brick wall, he’d like to refute some of these harsh and perhaps rashly made lashes against his work, but rest assured that if he speaks anything like he writes poetry then he’d probably be better off communicating to me by drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch with his toes.