The most interesting thing about Beck has always been that his pool of influences is bigger than most artists’. He’s a cultural sponge whose own material has been informed by film, literature and, most of all, obviously, just about every type of music under the sun. At his best, he’s capable of cramming an astounding number of those influences into his records, essentially subscribing to the theory that if you steal from enough wildly varied and obscure sources, it’s not really stealing at all. One could argue that he’s only managed to pull this off successfully once in his long career, on Odelay. Too often, he’s decided to pick a genre and stick with it for an entire record. Take Midnight Vultures, for instance, a funk record that was occasionally so bad it seemed like an offensive joke, or Sea Change, which everyone loves, but is really just a pretty decent, 70s-style folk record. Even his earliest records, all lo-fi and weird, were completely one-dimensional.
With Modern Guilt, he had a pretty great idea: to work with acclaimed hip-hop producer (and one half of Gnarls Barkley) Danger Mouse on a batch of strange psych-folk songs. The two vastly different sensibilities, presumably, were to come together and make each a good deal more interesting. Except it doesn’t really happen. Somewhere along the way, the production took a strange turn. It’s tinny and thin where it should be huge and swirling, with effects applied awkwardly throughout. In an interview with the New York Times a few weeks ago, Beck mentioned that he wanted everything to be as “concise” as possible, and while he did achieve his goal — most songs barely crack the three-minute mark — it feels like a missed opportunity. The songs are fine — a bit more personal and sad than some of his more recent work, with melodies that are admirable for their subtlety. Had that same subtlety not carried over to the disappointing production, Modern Guilt would have been a massive success. As it stands, though, it’s a record that is most notable for its rampant mishandling of what could have been.