Preview: Beck, Japan 2009

Singer's deadpan diversity
reflects life's complexity

Musicians can follow several paths to success: virtuoso command of an instrument, intense emotional connection with audiences, a vital message, or that mysterious X–factor called "charisma." Often they may have more than one of these qualities, and occasionally all of them. In the case of Beck, the quirky singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who brings his latest album Modern Guilt to Japan in March, the strange thing is that he seems to have none of these.

Since his breakthrough 1994 hit Loser, Beck's career has been built around the twin pillars of a wide–ranging musical eclecticism and a deadpan, ironic, emotionless singing style.

A musical jack-of-all-trades, able to pick and mix musical textures and effects, he lacks the single-mindedness necessary to be an outstanding performer on any one instrument, while his chosen singing style works against emotional expression, delivering a sincere message, and charisma.

What we are left with is an adept, eclectic musical jackdaw who seems afflicted with a kind of "emotional constipation." For example, on a digitally released single from the album Chemtrails, he sings about the horrifying possibility that we are all being poisoned by harmful chemicals released into the atmosphere by jet trails. This nightmare vision is set against a well-constructed musical texture of psychedelic Pink Floyd atmospherics, burbling bass, and restless, looped drum breaks.

The only problem, from a human emotional perspective, is that he sings about this fiendish conspiracy theory in his trademark voice – two parts unconcerned to one part soporific. This creates the impression that either Beck (a) doesn't care about what he's singing, or (b) doesn't believe what he's singing. The effect is to remove practically all emotional resonance from the song.

Nor is Beck the only musician who sings this way. Popular music abounds in examples of jaded, numbed or emotionally disembodied voices. The appeal of such vocals has much to do with the hectic texture of modern life.

The eclecticism and diversity of Beck's work is an aural equivalent of the diversity and complexity we face in our daily lives, and the feeling of sensory overload and emotional overextension that this engenders. It is this that makes ironic coolness both an acceptable attitude and vocal style. Coolness and irony are, after all, defense mechanisms of those unable, unwilling, or too jaded to engage with reality in a vital and emotional way.

While seeking to overwhelm us with unexpected musical twists and turns – daisy chain harmonies, shuffling beats, nuggets of disco, layers of hip hop, acid guitars, samples and loops – Beck also offers us slack–jawed emotional and sensory disengagement with his low–key, laid–back vocals.

But, this is not some slick, self-assured act. Deep down, tugging away within the music, there is the feeling that he is never really happy or satisfied with himself. Possibly this is the result of his awkward relationship with the Scientology cult – he admitted to being a member in 2005. Or possibly it is just the restless rootlessness that characterizes so many Californians.

Whatever the reason, underneath the well–produced irony and sangfroid, we occasionally catch a murmur of a more troubled and emotionally real Beck. On Walls, ostensibly an anti-War song, he seems to be talking about his own emotional isolation.

"You treat distraction like it's a religion/ with a rattlesnake step in your rhythm," he sings, possibly referring to how he uses music to hide his feelings rather than express them. While the chorus asks, "Hey what are you gonna do/ when those walls are falling down/ falling down on you?"

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
9th January, 2009
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