Monday, November 26, 2012

BECK AND RETROMANIA

I was listening to Pink Moon the other day--a late discovery for me, something I'd heard of but never really listened to until I got to grad school, and even then didn't really take to until the second year of my M.A.--and thought that for as good an album as it is (great songs, interesting arrangements, possibly the most perfect overdub in history [the piano line in "Pink Moon"]), it's an even better guitar album. Besides the fact that John Wood's production is a textbook example of how to record an acoustic guitar (it really is a joy just to hear that tone), Nick Drake is in brilliant form as a guitarist: not quite as freewheeling as some of his earlier work (like "Man in a Shed," for example, or much of Bryter Layter), but in full command of his talents, liquid runs mixed in with great chord work and lines that split the difference between chiming and droning ("Road," one of my favourite pieces of guitar music, being the best example of that). In fact, for all its simplicity--a guitar and an equally resonant male voice--Pink Moon achieves much of its singular power because of the inventive guitar playing. The circular chord progression underneath "Parasite" is an absolute necessity for its emotional content to hit at the right level and in the right places, a point that's often overlooked in attempts to ape Drake's sound and aesthetic.

Of course, there have been some successful copies of his work. I say copy rather than extension or development, because the song I have in mind--"Round the Bend" by Beck--is essentially a photocopy of "River Man," probably Drake's signature tune (interestingly, that's not Beck's only "borrowing" on the album: "Already Dead's" verses indulge in a bit of plagiarism at the expense of the Foo Fighter's superior--and wonderfully shouty--"I'll Stick Around"). The deliberate evocation of Drake's most recognisable song (prior to Volkswagen introducing a whole generation, myself very much included, to "Pink Moon") is a key part of the retromania-fest that is Sea Change. As an album, it feels mannered to the point of suffocation: a "serious," "mature," "artistic" work, Sea Change is very conservative in its template of sad man plus slow acoustic guitar songs. The best tracks are the ones that steer furthest away from this--"Round the Bend," obviously, but also "Paper Tiger" (the only track with a real semblance of life), "End of the Day" (with its gestures to some kind of casiotone country), and "Sunday Sun" (in its distorted climax)--but even they are indebted to specific strains of the past. That's not a problem in an of itself, but when that debt is figured as some kind of guarantor of authenticity--either in the sense that the music of the past was somehow "real" music in a way that today's music falls short of (e.g. rockism and calls for the return of rock), or that the emotions that the artist wishes to convey can be presented in their "realest" form in a style of the past (e.g. yearning and 1950s ballads)--the retromaniacal impulse becomes one of tail-chasing stagnation, curatorial consumption rather than creation. 

I've not followed Beck's career all that closely since Sea Change--in fact, I gave the album to an ex-girlfriend and never bothered to get it back--but what has popped up on my radar has fallen into this same kind of retromania. His record club project, while great fun for its participants I'm sure, (the recording sessions certainly seem like they were a blast) is perhaps the most damning example of this: track for track covers of "classic" albums (something that the Flaming Lips have also gotten into as they've settled down into increasingly less interesting work), without even the wink and nudge of the Moog Cookbook or Camper Van Beethoven's version of Tusk. Was this retromaniacal turn an inevitability for Beck? Hidden in his gleeful appropriation of junk culture and slacker attitude, was it a time bomb waiting to appear?

Certainly, by Mutations (named after Os Mutantes), Beck's urge to cite, to curate and to copy, had already begun to overwhelm him, parody clearly slipping into pastiche (a transformation completed in toto on Midnight Vultures). "Nobody's Fault But My Own" is the best of Beck's sad sack mopey ballads, but its sitars and Orientalisms are already as caught up in some period piece vision of the late 1960s as anything Oasis ever did. The real turn on Mutations is one toward "craft," and specifically songcraft as understood to mean very conventional and traditional notions of guitar driven music. Odelay's collage may have been a dead end, but it was also a force that managed to counterbalance the guitars and the reliance on folk, blues, and country throughout. For all its craft, Odelay is a different kind of self-conscious from Mutations, one that is equally exhausting and stifling in the end, but that also feels comfortably of its time (even if that means it sounds surprisingly dated in some ways today) in a way that its follow up abandons. Or rather, doesn't abandon, but rather reveals to be irrelevant: Mutations' influences--tropicalia, bossa nova, 1970s singer-songwriter music--is as up to the moment current for 1998 as are Odelay's influences for 1996. The difference is that Mutations is about its influences. Not doing anything with them, not transmuting them, but instead making them very apparent. They are the surface and the content, the purpose of these songs. Mutations, despite its title, changes nothing. It has the good taste to cite accurately and completely.

Looking back at his career arc, the later Beck's subsumption in overt retromania seems inevitable. One Foot in the Grave, his lo-fi folk album from 1994 (the phase of his career most obviously referenced by Sea Change), is designed to separate out a certain strain of his music and present it in its "authentic" form, "bolster[ing] his neo-folkie credibility the way the nearly simultaneously released Stereopathic Soul Manure accentuated his underground noise prankster credentials," as Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it. As a poster child for a certain form of indie rock's postmodern 1990s, an artist who was considered both cutting edge/hip and commercially viable, Beck seems like a useful signpost for investigating what happened to so forcefully propagate retromaniacal culture in the 2000s. The various phases of his career, for example, are an obviously different kind to that of Madonna (another postmodern artist who straddled the cutting edge/hip and commercially viable realms) or David Bowie (certainly a modernist [at most, a "limit-modernist," to use Brian McHale's term], whose "characters" explore an idea of persona that no early twentieth-century modernist would be uncomfortable with). It seems to me that a more careful and patient reading of Beck's oeuvre might reveal some points toward the definition of a retromaniacal artistic temperament, which might be a useful tool for analysis and criticism going forward.

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