Balancing Beck

A well-adjusted Beck produces a modest summer blockbuster

Jay Boller

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“Modern Guilt”

Starring: Beck
Co-starring: Chan Marshall (Cat Power)
Directed by: Beck and Danger Mouse

plot: Almost 40 and with seven albums under his belt, Los Angeles native Beck would appear to have nothing left to prove. But creative virtuosos the likes of Beck don’t rest on their laurels – three LPs in the past four years can attest to that. But the once funky and hip-hop-obsessed maniac from the mid-’90s has shifted in the new millennium. Beginning with the aptly titled “Sea Change” (2002), Beck has wandered down a darker, sulkier and more introspective path.

In 2008, our protagonist teams up with respected beat-man Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame) and smoky-voiced heroine Chan Marshall (Cat Power) to wrestle with the dueling personalities that define Beck in “Modern Guilt.”

What works: The casting of Danger Mouse alongside Beck is an inspired move. Beck has co-starred with plenty of scene-stealing producers in his day (Nigel Godrich , The Dust Brothers ) but Danger Mouse’s multi-instrumentalist approach is wide-ranging yet never cluttered, routinely delivering complex beats that are also impossibly catchy.

The dialogue occasionally resembles the nonsensical Beck scripts of old – “She’s got a cactus crown/With a dot dot dot on her brow/And she speaks inside a cloud” – but more often than not, the doubt and self-loathing of contemporary Beck scripts come to the forefront. “If we could learn to freeze ourselves alive/We could leave these burdens to burn,” he sings in the opening track. Marshall and Beck’s chemistry in “Orphans” and “Walls” feels organic, as Marshall’s ethereal vocals meld seamlessly with Beck’s.

What doesn’t work: With so many good ideas floating around, the album’s overall brevity (33 minutes long) makes it almost a tease upon completion. Because “Modern Guilt” is such a strong production, there are not many aspects that don’t work, but rather bullets that were dodged in its making. Beck’s continued journey into darker realms made choosing the notoriously funky Danger Mouse a peculiar co-star, but those who got up and left during the marathon of mope that was “Sea Change” can tap their toes and wallow all at once with “Modern Guilt.” Danger Mouse’s beats serve almost as a candy shell for the melancholy medicine Beck doles out. 2005’s “Guero” felt like Beck was forcibly trying to channel the sample-crazy zaniness of his “Odelay “-era self, but the main obstacle listeners will face with Beck-noir is the realization that “happy” Beck is, in fact, dead.

The verdict: Two thumbs up. The only thing that feels better than new artists hitting their stride is older artists recapturing themselves. Many credit the demise of an almost decade-long relationship in 2000 as the catalyst for the moodier Beck of today. Whether that’s the case, after a solid but sometimes misguided series of productions in the early part of this millennium, it finally feels like Beck is comfortable in his own skin again. Maybe it’s the joy of a happy marriage and two kids. Maybe it’s the fulfillment that comes with practicing Scientology . More likely, it’s the fact that Beck has found a balance between his music and his demons. Even though it feels more like a glorified trailer than a full-length, “Modern Guilt” certainly hints at a powerful sequel.

Key scenes: “Volcano,” “Walls” and “Modern Guilt”