He’s the prolific one-name artist known as much for his homegrown musical experiments as his full-band funkadelic workouts. Despite well-publicized battles with his record company, he’s back with a new album and a few new tricks up his sleeve. What’s his name? If you guessed Prince, you need a sign o’ the times. It’s 1999, and this party is being brought to you by Beck, the true heir to the purple throne.
As if to make the connection even more explicit, Beck’s new record Midnite Vultures is his most soulful, sex-obsessed and dance-ready disc to date. On first listen, tracks like "Mixed Bizness" and "Peaches & Cream", with their burbling synths, staccato guitar bursts and soaring falsettos, sound like they’ve been smuggled straight out of the legendary vaults of Paisley Park. But Beck has always been too restless a musical explorer to be pinned down to one influence, and repeated exposure to Midnite Vultures reveals unexpected collisions of urban and hillbilly influences; 60’s psychedelia and cheesy 70’s rave-ups; tender ballads and unclassifiable weirdness.
Kicking off with the first single "Sexx Laws" and wrapping up with the slow jam "Debra" ("I wanna get with you, girl/And your sister/I think her name’s Debra"), it’s clear where Beck’s head is at this time around. But just as Prince had trouble separating sex from religion, Beck finds his carnal pleasures inextricably bound with death and decay. "Nicotine & Gravy" describes something less than a dream date: "I’ll be your chauffeur on a midnight drive/It takes a miracle just to survive" leads into the chilly chant "I don’t wanna die tonight." The spooky, robotic "Get Real Paid" notes, "There’s so much to do before you die…touch my ass if you’re qualified." Whatever that means, it doesn’t sound like much fun.
Yet Midnite Vultures is almost nothing but fun. On a pure ear candy level, songs like "Milk & Honey" and "Beautiful Way" lodge themselves in the listener’s consciousness by the second listen. Beck’s singing is more elastic and less self-conscious than it’s ever been. "Debra" in particular is a revelation – how to reconcile this funk soul brother with the 90-pounds-soaking-wet Beck Hansen? But a closer listen to the lyrics ("I met you at JC Penny/I think your name tag said Jenny…Girl, step inside my Hyundai") leaves little doubt as to the postmodern sensibility behind the curtain. Midnite Vultures may not be quite as startling and imaginative as Beck’s 1996 breakthrough Odelay, but it’s darker and more consistent, and displays a brash confidence that feels earned.
One nit-picky complaint about the album – really a pet peeve more than anything else – is the obligatory "bonus track." For whatever reason, Beck seems to think it the height of hilarity to stick ten minutes of silence at the end of the last track on the CD, then suddenly burst forth with the ungodly sound of a garbage truck full of washing machines backing into a crowded video arcade for about twenty seconds. You know, just in case you’ve dozed off on the couch while listening to the record. Okay, it was funny the first three times. Can we skip it from now on?
Dismissed by many as a one-hit wonder upon the release of his 1993 slacker anthem "Loser", Beck has confounded every expectation and will no doubt rest comfortably atop many an "Artist of the Decade" list in the weeks to come – and rightfully so. From the PCP-laced basement tapes of Mellow Gold to the Gen-X folk of One Foot in the Grave to the cuisinart pop art of Odelay to the small-time-criminals-poolside-in-Reno-soundtrack Mutations, he has assembled a body of work as varied and brilliant and seemingly effortless as…well…Prince’s great mid-80’s run. And as long as Beck doesn’t change his name to an unpronounceable symbol and move to Neptune anytime soon, this is just the beginning.