On his eighth studio album, set for release Tuesday on his 38th birthday, alternative survivor and postmodern poster boy Beck Hansen doesnt give us anything radically new. Id always wanted to do a modern version of a psych-rock record, but I was also wary of rehashed nostalgia, he recently told the British press. Of course, after various experiments with psychedelic folk on his earlier recordings, he pretty much perfected his take on the genre with the masterful Sea Change (2002), and then toured with the Flaming Lips as his backing band to underscore the point.
Returning to this turf after more conventionally Beck-like hits with Guero (2005) and The Information (2006), the added element this time the collaboration with producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, whos shown both an ear for memorable melodies and a sense for familiar yet fresh-sounding grooves while redefining psychedelic pop for a new generation with Gnarls Barkley and his mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z on The Grey Album. At times, as is common with Beck, the songwriting is so po-mo that its just an annoying mess; Replica is a failed experiment at digital-glitch jazz, and much of the album boasts nonsense lyrics improvised off the cuff at the mike.
When things gel, however, this is Beck at his best. Over Danger Mouses unlikely but effective mix of sawing cellos and skittering electronic beats in Walls, with a moaning theremin evoking a womans screams in the choruses, Beck paints as haunting a picture of the plight of the modern war victim as Ive heard, simultaneously urging Gen Y Americans to wake up lest they suffer the same fate. You got warheads stacked in the kitchen/You treat distraction like its a religion, he sings. Hey what are you gonna do/When these walls are falling down/Falling down on you?
What makes the soul, the soul of a man? Beck asks at another point in these 10 songs. Hes never claimed to have an answer, but by flailing around mixing and matching as many disparate elements as possible, hes created as soulful a body of work as any songwriter in his generation, and Modern Guilt is a welcome addition to that legacy.