Years of sampledelica, instant remixes, amorphous albums, and mischief have obscured how Beck was seen at the outset of his career: He wasn’t viewed as a mere prankster, but a songwriter. Far from dooming him as a novelty, “Loser”—the deadpan 1993 single that turned him into a star—saddled Beck with the “voice of a generation” tag, thanks to his laconic, sardonic drawl embodying the slack of Generation X. To solidify his status, his songs were covered—and given a tacit nod of approval—by artists with stature. Tom Petty recorded the 1994 track “Asshole” for his soundtrack to Ed Burns’ 1996 rom-com She’s The One (in retrospect, a nifty time capsule of post-alt haziness); that same year Johnny Cash sang “Rowboat” on Unchained, his second collaboration with Rick Rubin. Both were strong indications of how Beck was viewed as part of a folk tradition that stretched back into the old, weird America.
But Beck soon shook off all the expectations, placing all his chips on the Dust Brothers’ sonic collages for 1996’s Odelay, his first major-label album after 1994’s Mellow Gold and first to be made with a wide audience in mind. Odelay is still the only one where all his contradictions are seamlessly woven together, capturing his myriad influences as well as the conflicting cultural tides of the ’90s, a time when this folk-punk terrorist rocked the hip-hop with the pantyhose and didn’t seem like a freak. Racking up a couple of hits and a Grammy, Odelay crystallized the popular perception of Beck—an ironist who is happy to tweak the collective consciousness, a one-man Beastie Boys. He never quite abandoned gravity; his rush back to folk for 1998’s Mutations established a pattern that continued when he tempered the millennial freak party Midnight Vultures with the mournful breakup record Sea Change.
Ever since that 2002 release—a proudly classicist record in its construction and intent, one that could have been passed off as a ’70s artifact—Beck has seemed bored with the very idea of the album, or even pop music. He tried his hand at professional pop songwriting, giving the sly, lithe “Feel Good Time” to P!nk in 2003, a stab at pure dance-pop that should have been a hit. He reunited with the Dust Brothers for 2005’s Guero, a monochromatically kaleidoscopic record he immediately repurposed into special editions and quickfire remixes. The main distinguishing factor of 2007’s perfectly fine The Information was its paraphernalia: omnipresent bonus tracks, make-your-own artwork, low-budget videos. He took a stab at a lean throwback LP with Danger Mouse—2008’s Modern Guilt, which just brushed past the half-hour mark—and when that didn’t quite seize the public’s imagination, he drifted into re-recording favorite (The Velvet Underground & Nico, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Skip Spence’s Oar) and not-so-favorite (INXS’ Kick, Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis) albums. He then turned to production, harnessing his love of sound and making Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thurston Moore, and Stephen Malkmus sound more like themselves on record.
Each project suggested a creative soul thirsting for a real challenge; his recent ones also found Beck devoting himself to the recording studio, not the craft of writing. [...]