In Defense of … Beck’s ‘Midnite Vultures’
When Beck released his first studio album in six years, ‘Morning Phase,’ earlier this year, most critics and fans gushed. Brokenhearted folkie Beck was back! He was ready to be taken seriously again! Reviews eagerly tossed around words like “wiser” and “substantive” to describe the album’s muted palette of acoustic guitars and brooding strings. The underlying tone was one of relief: Finally, ‘Sea Change’ Beck had won out over ‘MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack’ Beck. The eternal manchild had matured.
Me? I listened to ‘Morning Phase’ once, and then went back to ‘Midnite Vultures.’
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with sadcore Beck. ‘Morning Phase’ is a fine album, though it pales in comparison to ‘Sea Change,’ the original sadcore Beck album, whose haunted steps it somewhat self-consciously retraces. Beck is a stone-cold genius who’s proven by now that he can weave mellow gold out of any genre you care to name, from skeletal acoustic blues to ‘Paul’s Boutique’-style hip-hop pastiche to slinky tropicalia. He even breathed new life into INXS (with a big assist from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark).
So if he wants to be all gloomy and grownup now, more power to him. But I hope he remembers a line from ‘Midnite Vultures,’ off the track ‘Broken Train’: “Beige is the color of resignation.” Because ‘Morning Phase’ is a goddamned beige album.
‘Midnite Vultures,’ by contrast, lives up to the purple vinyl pants on its cover and then some. The 1999 album represents Beck at his snarkiest, funkiest and most playful, but because of the snark factor, many critics and even some fans have written it off as a big put-on. Though it received favorable reviews and sold well at the time of its release, in the years since its reputation has diminished when placed alongside those “serious” Beck LPs like ‘Sea Change’ and his still-funky but more somber Danger Mouse collaboration ‘Modern Guilt.’ Q magazine even listed ‘Midnite Vultures’ in 2006 as the 50th worst album of all time, right behind Milli Vanilli and that terrible Ozzy Osbourne covers record.
But if you haven’t listened to ‘Midnite Vultures’ in awhile, you need to revisit it. Yes, it’s Beck’s funniest album, but it’s way more than just one big snark-fest or some white-boy, faux-Prince piss-take, which is the other criticism popularly leveled against it. Yes, many of the album’s best-known tracks, including the tongue-in-cheek slow jam 'Debra,' owe the Purple One a debt. But that barely scratches the surface of the album’s far-reaching range of influences. In many ways, ‘Midnite Vultures’ is an equally brilliant sequel to the groundbreaking ‘Odelay,’ one that takes the cut-and-paste techniques of that earlier, more hip-hop-inspired record and applies them to a full-band format.
Everyone knows ‘Debra’ and the album’s two sorta-hits, the horn-fueled ‘Sexx Laws’ and its corny companion piece, ‘Mixed Bizness,’ on which Beck mixed business with leather and made all the lesbians scream. But it’s the album’s deeper cuts that really reward repeat listens.
There’s the languid, psychedelic folk-rock of ‘Beautiful Way,’ whose smeared steel guitars re-imagine ‘Meddle’-era Pink Floyd by way of the Velvet Underground. ‘Pressure Zone,’ with its Duran Duran bassline and ‘80s Bowie backing vocals. The aforementioned ‘Broken Train,’ which sounds more like ‘70s Bowie, two parts glam and one part blue-eyed soul, with a jigsaw puzzle arrangement that features everything from marimba to baritone sax to clavinet. And, next to ‘Debra,’ the album’s most audacious track: ‘Peaches and Cream,’ a slow, falsetto funk jam that improbably morphs into a pompous rendition of the old spiritual ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.’
‘Peaches and Cream’ sums up what I love most about ‘Midnite Vultures’: its brazen combination of silliness and bravura musicianship. So, for that matter, does ‘Debra,’ which endures as one of Beck’s greatest songs not just because of how funny it is, but because of how well his band rides that sinuous groove. Lines like, “Lady, step inside my Hyundai” wouldn’t be half as ridiculous if they weren’t delivered atop that foxy Justin Meldal-Johnsen bassline and that twinkling Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., Fender Rhodes. I love Flight of the Conchords, but they probably owe at least half their catalog to ‘Debra.’
So no, ‘Midnite Vultures’ is not Beck’s most “serious” album. But it’s a more diverse, musically accomplished affair than it’s generally remembered as. And you have to admit: Some of those faux-Prince moments are pretty fantastic.