Beck just ain't the free-wheelin' spirit he used to be. The ingeniously poppy-melodic sensibilities of his early albums have almost completely disappeared by this point. Modern Guilt is Beck's most recent album. He has come to terms with his heartbreak and feelings of alienation thereof which is evident on Guero, made all the more poignant by such songs as Go It Alone, Earthquake Weather, and Missing. He has also stopped fooling himself (and us) that he can somehow rekindle that childish wonder which galvanized his earlier works (see Odelay, Midnight Vultures, Mellow Gold).
Modern Guilt shows a truly matured Beck displaying an earnestness not seen since Sea Change, which drastically veered from his larger body of work, save for its distant cousin, Mutations. The album opens with the single Orphans which sets the pace for the rest of the album both melodically and lyrically. The theme of this album is conveyed in the first few lyrics of this song, "I think I'm stranded but I don't know where, I got a diamond that don't know how to shine." This is not only an indictment of where Beck has been both musically and personally, it verbalizes feelings that Beck was not able to articulate on his previous albums, or perhaps didn't even understand. The album could not have a more fitting opening. Chemtrails is subdued, yet poppy and catchy enough to be the albums second single. The floaty, haunting lyrics and twinkling minimalist piano will lull you into listening, with the punctuation of the song snapping you back into reality as he sings the chorus over thumping drums "Down by the sea, so many people, they've already drowned". The gravity of these lyrics only add to the punctuation of the poppy rhythms of this song. This can be credited perhaps to the production skills of Danger Mouse who worked as producer on this album. Perhaps the most pop-oriented and dullest song on the record is Youthless, which hearkens back to The Information days. The back-beat and predictable production make this a very forgettable single, but with any luck it'll appear in a Scion or Apple commercial. The closing song Volcano has a slow-churning rhythm and is kind of a downer. I don't think this song could fit anywhere else on the record really. As a closer, it is choice as Beck sing-songs to a haunting, moaning, backing vocal melody the lyrics "I'm going to that volcano, don't wanna fall in though, just want to warm my bones on that fire a while". We hope that Beck doesn't get engulfed by that metaphorical fire he describes, but the need to feel the kiss of the heat that he describes is something that is relatable, so we can all understand it, though maybe we don't know why.
Beck will never be the same again. Though he's never made anything like Odelay or Midnight Vultures since or before, he'll never lose us in absurd, dadaist lyricism or catchy mish-mash pop-rock anthems. On Modern Guilt you know exactly what he's talking about. His sense of alienation is tangible on this album, feelings of despair, hopelessness, anxiety, the pressures we all face as adults swimming out of the haze of childhood, and the frustration at finding the words to articulate these feelings are clear. The only thing that is any more obvious is that Beck has grown as a musician and will make that all the more clearer with each coming album.