So it’s basically summer, my life as an undergraduate is over, and the time has come to stop writing so many album reviews. This is not my interpretation of branching out; rather, this is me writing about a song that sounds so forlorn and defeatist, I can’t help but love it.
Much of Beck’s 2008 album Modern Guilt is about dread, but that’s not really a surprise, given his past form. In 2002, he released Sea Change, a break-up album, which saw him forgo the usual junkyard of samples and hip hop beats for a melodramatic palette of orchestral washes and angsty textures. Where Modern Guilt diverges from the Sea Change template, however, is that it doesn’t sound like an unhappy album, for the most part. Built on crisp grooves and clean guitar tones, with occasional pulses of vintage synths, it bears the unmistakeable stamp of its producer, Danger Mouse. Even when he’s moaning about post-millennial blues or the titular modern guilt, the album evokes visions of sunset shorelines, end-of-summer barbecues, and old school romance.
Beck saves all his sonic misery for the closing track, “Volcano”, which stutters into being before settling into a gloomy beat. Over a tenderly strummed acoustic guitar and a deathly mass of harmonies, Beck intones unexceptional deadbeat imagery: “Was it all an illusion, or a mirage gone bad?” he asks. But shot through this predictable guff, he spins us an intriguing yarn about a “Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano”. As the music drifts between sweeping string arrangements and the sparser verses, Beck sings of a longing for man’s elemental home, in “the womb of the world”. At the end of the song, he shows his full hand: he’s not searching for the primordial soup or the pit of hell, he just wants to “warm [his] bones / On that fire a while”.
“Volcano” is the kind of heart-on-sleeve song Beck’s yearned to write in the years that followed Sea Change. But, as he told the New York Times in the week preceding Modern Guilt’s release,
“It’s harder and harder to write songs these days […] I’m always slashing and burning, going, ‘Is this too on the sleeve?’ But if you’re not up front like that then you’re hiding behind something, so it’s a real manoeuvring.”
On “Volcano”, it’s like he’s given up trying to play the part of the cool and insouciant freewheeler, and wants to confront his real persona, with nothing to hide behind. The song is raw, and doesn’t play the same game as what has come before it on the album. Danger Mouse’s presence is deft—an occasional glitch in the rhythm; the soft thump of the bass drum—and doesn’t get in the way of what is a beautifully uncompromising portrait of the artist. Here, he’s not so much bemoaning a modern state of mind, as critically analysing himself.
“I’ve been drinking all these tears so long
All I’ve got left is the taste of salt in my mouth.”
At times, in the past, Beck has seemed calculating about his image: on the tour supporting The Information, he employed puppeteers to mirror his every move on stage. He seemed liable to disappear into his own cultivated image. On “Volcano”, he appears to appreciate and abandon these efforts, in favour of a more naturalistic approach to making music, and the resulting song is an exercise in restraint, which still delivers an emotional sucker-punch.