Three songs into Beck’s collaboration with producer Danger Mouse and there’s a sense that the L.A. singer-songwriter is drifting full-bore into a psychedelic classic, a thoroughly modern take on Syd Barrett with production elements that have never been heard on a Beck album. It takes a sudden turn right between “Chemtrails” and “Modern Guilt,” heading into playfully funky territory with Danger Mouse assuming control and driving the rest of the way. Despite the turn, “Modern Guilt’s” 10 tracks have an easily digested linear connection.
The instincts of Danger Mouse (Brian Burton, one half of Gnarls Barkley), are toward the rhythmic and the layers of instruments often service the beat and the overall blueprint. Beck, though, doesn’t care to play it straight. The music experiences the sort of deconstruction that has long been Beck Hansen’s forte — a reggae tune places the drums and bass just out of reach of one another, a dance track is pushed off kilter as each verse rolls around and, throughout, vocals are placed at various levels within the mix, sometimes buried, sometimes very far forward.
In terms of sonic design, “Modern Guilt” it is one of Beck’s most consistent recordings, but it is also one of the shortest — 34 minutes — and much of it owes to Danger Mouse applying his trademark veneer. Lyrically strong, with recurring themes of identity, rejuvenation and various steps on the ladder of hope, weariness pervades Beck’s vocals. There’s an undercurrent, though, that fatigue has not led him to give up; instead, he’s peering around the corner for a new direction, even asking how people can live while constantly looking over their shoulders. As he sings on “Volcano”: “I don’t know where I’ve been/But I know where I’m going/To that volcano/I don’t want to fall in though/Just want to warm my bones/On that fire a while.”