When I was in high school, all my friends had obsessions. Nikki was obsessed with Marilyn Manson and wore scary, Goth make-up. Melissa was obsessed with the Beatles and was “Lucy64” in online Beatles chatrooms. Degra was obsessed with Nirvana and made us celebrate the anniversary of Kurt’s death with a cake. Their obsessions defined them.
I decided I needed to solidify my personality and make a definitive statement about who I was. I decided to become obsessed with Beck.
I already liked Beck’s music, and he was the skinny, shaggy-haired, baby-faced kind of adorable that was just my type. I went about becoming obsessed with him in a very methodical way. I read about him. I cut out pictures of him from magazines and taped them to my wall. I made his face my computer screen saver and declared that I was going to marry Beck one day.
I already owned his recent popular album, Odelay (1996), so I obtained Mellow Gold (with the hit single from 1994, “Loser”), as well as his lesser-known albums at the time: Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave.
Stereopathetic Soulmanure is, I have to admit, pretty weird. Some of the songs are more noise than melody (like the aptly-named first track, “Pink Noise”), and there are creepy clips of distorted voices saying things like “the taco trucks were crashed and there was sausage all over and Sasquatch was eating a burrito.” In different circumstances I might have discounted the album, but since I had decided to be obsessed with Beck, I gave it another few listens and began to appreciate it. There’s the weirdly beautiful “Crystal Clear (Beer)” (opening line: “plastic donut, can of Spam, there’s no kindness in this land”), and the hilariously awesome narrative ballad, “Satan Gave Me a Taco.” In recent years, I’ve begun to think of Stereopathetic Soulmanure as a sort of musical collage with random clips of songs and recordings and electronic noise, artfully arranged by Beck.
One Foot in the Grave is a little easier on the ears, but, at fifteen, it wasn’t the sort of thing I normally listened to. It’s a slow, folksy, man-and-his guitar album (eccentric man-and his guitar album), with some songs (such as “He’s a Mighty Good Leader” and “I’ve Seen the Land Beyond”) sounding more like old-timey country than modern rock. But, again, I was now officially obsessed with Beck, so I kept listening, and I grew to love One Foot in the Grave in quite a profound way.
I listened to Beck’s 1998 hodge-podge album, Mutations, on repeat while I made my Science Fair poster Junior year. Then I couldn’t get enough of the dancy, sexy Midnight Vultures album, which came out just as I was entering college in 1999. And, for the past fifteen years, I have continued to follow Beck’s career and buy every single one of his albums. I don’t know if I would say I’m obsessed with Beck these days, but I am definitely a life-long fan.
So what is it I like so much about Beck Hansen? As a writer, I love the way he plays with words. His lyrics can sometimes seem random, but his combinations of images and ideas are often poetic, clever, surprising, and even moving. And I love his eccentricities. He released his last album (Song Reader, 2012) as nothing but sheet music and asked people to record their own versions. (What a weirdo!) He’s also an adorable dancer (see the “New Pollution” video) and a great performer (see how he performed David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” on a circular stage with a 170-piece orchestra.)
But what I admire most about Beck is his ability to combine styles, and his courage to do different things instead of sticking with the same-old same-old. Beck has dabbled in just about every musical genre you can imagine: folk, blues, rock, country, hip-hop, R&B and electronica, often combining multiple genres into one song. He can release a slow, serious, melancholic album like Sea Change (2002) and then follow it up with a playful, upbeat, pop-rock album like Guero (2005). He can write complex songs with bizarre, ironic lyrics, and simple songs filled with raw, plaintive emotion. In a way, Beck’s discography is a musical collage in itself.
* * *
I’ve always been a collage maker and a collage fan. In high school I made mix tapes (packed with Beck songs), and created collages for the covers. I like putting things together that might not normally belong.
In my writing, too, I like to dabble with different genres and styles. And I hope that as my writing career continues, I can be eclectic, like Beck. I want to write somber and soulful literary fiction, followed by fun and frisky YA, followed by weirdly dark fantasy. I don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing time after time. Like Beck, I want to be constantly evolving.
Beck’s latest evolution is his 2014 album, Morning Phase, which some critics are already calling Beck’s best work in years. I downloaded it at midnight on February 25th – the day it was released.
Morning Phase is a beautiful album. Some music writers are comparing it to Sea Change, and I agree, but the difference to me is that Morning Phase is more hopeful. Whereas Sea Change is about bittersweet endings (“Lost Cause,” “Lonesome Tears,” “Already Dead”), Morning Phase is more of an ethereal awakening (“Morning,” “Cycle,” “Waking Light”). It’s a sunrise as opposed to a sunset. The songs are soft and slow and, although sometimes bittersweet, there’s a sense of optimism in the bright chords.
Although Beck changes his style from album to album, there are themes that reoccur, and this is especially noticeable between Sea Change and Morning Phase. He sings of loss, loneliness, broken spirits, broken hearts, (broken drums). He sings of wanderings both physical and emotional. (Gypsies and vagabonds are common mentions in his lyrics.) He also sings of rebirth. In Morning Phase’s “Heart is a Drum” and “Say Goodbye” there is the sense that things are ending, but instead of lingering in sadness like he did with Sea Change, Beck seems accepting this time. Change is a part of life, and a new day will dawn.
I wouldn’t say I’m love with Morning Phase. It’s a little too 1960’s mellow folk-rock for my tastes. I tend to be partial to Beck’s more upbeat, playful rock albums: Midnight Vultures, Odelay, Guero, and Modern Guilt. But, who knows, I might give the album a few more listens and find it becomes one of my favorites.
If Stereopathetic Soulmanue is a mixed media collage, and One Foot in the Grave is a simple pencil sketch, and Midnight Vultures is splashy, neon pop-art, and Odelay is ironic hipster art, then perhaps Morning Phase is a beautiful landscape painting. Something quietly lovely that you experience more with your heart than with your mind.
I no longer need to be obsessed with something in order to define who I am. But perhaps I was drawn to Beck to begin with because, despite the fact that he tries different styles on for size, he has always had a very clear sense of who he is, and he’s not afraid to show it. This comes through loud and clear in every single one of his albums.