Beck – Modern Guilt

This year is the ten-year anniversary of Modern Guilt, an album that came and went without much fanfare that I feel deserves re-examination in 2018. Especially viewed from my perspective today, Modern Guilt feels like Beck unwittingly wrote a manifesto to the dangers of being Extremely Online in a divisive age.

Modern Guilt was my backdoor into Beck’s catalog, and I only gave it a shot due to my obsession at the time regarding anything produced by Danger Mouse (The Mouse and the Mask, Demon Days). Although some of my favorite Beck songs are on other albums, Modern Guilt stands out as his most consistent work.

My specific memories of listening to Modern Guilt were from my car as I finished up assigned readings for a summer economic’s class I was taking at George Mason University, a class I think back on fondly for making very complex things seem so simple. The distorted, surf-rock bass fuzz of “Gamma Ray” complimented the heat radiating off the dash as I finished up my last minute readings.

In terms of his alignment with “the zeitgeist”, Modern Guilt occupies a period when Beck was in the valley of his career bell curve. It was released well-after “Loser”, Sea Change, and his Futurama appearance, but before a six-year hiatus where Beck returned to prominence by winning a Grammy with Morning Phase and re-establishing radio presence with Colors.

Critics were tepid on Modern Guilt upon it’s release. Some called it a “vanity project“, and the general consensus was that Beck was no longer much of an innovator compared to his earlier work.

In retrospect though, I feel like Beck was ahead of the curve as ever. Modern Guilt‘s apocalyptic vision from 2008 feels like a premonition of things that have come to pass in 2018.

Modern Guilt begins with “Orphans“, where Beck doesn’t waste very much time ushering you into his sonic hellscape:

Think I’m stranded but I don’t know where
I got this diamond that don’t know how to shine
In the sun where these dark winds wail
And these children leave their rulers behind

If you can’t tell, the lyricism is fucking bleak, even bleaker then the terminally morose Sea Change!  Whereas Sea Change was depressing portrait of a dying relationship, “Orphans” (and by extension, the rest of Modern Guilt) sounds like a postscript for a society that’s already dead. Save for a couple generous flourishes of acoustic guitar, the factory-precision drumming makes the track resemble the work of machine instead of a band. Beck’s singing does little to add any humanity to the proceedings as he sounds like a world-weary vagabond roaming the wastes to pass wisdom on to the remaining few tasked to rebuild. “Orphans” sets an unsettling tone that looms over the rest of the album.

The next couple of tracks, “Gamma Ray” and “Chemtrails”, thematically make for an ironic juxtaposition in 2018.

The aforementioned “Gamma Ray” is an irradiated surf-rock track driven by a menacing bass line. It’s the soundtrack to a groovy beach boogie where a perpetually rising tide drowns all the participants.

“Chemtrails” feels a lot more somber and forgiving, as Beck’s falsetto croons over a mournful interplay of synths and pianos and propelled forward by some of the most outstanding drumming I’ve heard outside of a RJD2 or The National album. (That guitar solo reprise at the end ain’t half bad, either).

It’s interesting that these two tracks bookend one another. One track is about the impending threat of global warming, while the other is about, well, Chemtrails. In theory, they are two existential threats that are in ideological opposition to one another. One threat I feel is real, and the other I feel is conspiratorial.

One of scariest things about our present moment is the ease in which you can find someone diametrically and vociferously opposed to your beliefs on literally any topic. Someone who would easily show up in a comment section calling me a shill or an NPC for stating what should be a universally accepted set of facts. Somebody who could back up any insane assertion under the sun with a curated set of dubious yet slickly produced set of memes or YouTube explainers. 

It speaks to the dichotomy of political discourse today, as our republic is diverges into a series of multiverses before our very eyes. Be it on the lines of “Russiagate” or “Pizzagate”, our ideological spectrum is beginning to vivisect itself into an multiple organisms, each with their own reality of facts. However, like the themes of both of these songs, our collective political discourse is unified by one prevailing emotion: fear.

The albums centerpiece is the titular track, which is probably Beck’s most forthright explanation of what this sense of “Modern Guilt” really is–a prevailing sense of alienation from public life and the vague threat that the public is out to get you. As Beck explained in an NPR interview around the release of the album, the lyrics for this song apparently came off the top of his head without much forethought, as if they were a distant feeling he could finally put some words to:

Standing outside the glass on the sidewalk
These people talk about impossible things
And I’m falling out of the conversation
And I’m a pawn piece in a human shield

With Twitter as our new public square, it’s hard not to feel alienated by the absurdity of political conversations taking place in front of our eyes. The most extreme viewpoints from bad actors are amplified and reflected off of one another, propping up flashy charlatans across the ideological spectrum and giving them symbiosis with one another. Nuance and moderation is a liability, as our short term attentions are wired to consume narratives in a crisp 280 characters. It’s a 24/7 car accident whose flotsam runs off into the streams and tributaries that sustain every other aspect of the news cycle. Everyone hates it but no one can escape from it.

The track concludes with the following sentiment:

Modern guilt is all in our hands
Modern guilt won’t get me to bed
Say what you will, smoke your last cigarette
Don’t know what I’ve done but I feel afraid

When the majority of political discussion you read online feels increasingly driven by bad-faith actors, it’s hard not to feel increasingly divorced from the conversation to an almost paranoid degree. Online discourse is now an intellectual bloodsport–a modern day Coliseum for a society weaned off of physical violence. Nothing is out of bounds when it comes to getting a “win” for your team, be it intentionally taking something out of context, trying to get you fired, doxxing you, or swatting your house.

Beck’s conception of “Modern Guilt” feels incredibly like being online in 2018; a feeling that some seemingly innocuous opinion you had or stance you took will, with enough time or context that’s been removed, take you down in an disproportionate fashion.

In the bleak picture of society Beck paints on “Modern Guilt”, it feels like the only way to win in society online is to not be public at all. Instead, the only logical path forward in life is to keep your head low, sight-line on your feet, and go about your business with a quiet anonymous dignity. Much like like the covert art of Modern Guilt itself.

Modern Guilt concludes where it started on “Volcano“. Beck, still a lost wanderer in a monochromatic hellscape, is no wiser than when he started on “Orphans”, yet propels himself forward with a mechanical, droning lurch. We learn his metaphorical destination is a real-life volcano that a woman flung herself into in the 1930’s. However, Beck doesn’t want to suffer the fate of this woman, but instead feels obligated to suffer a microcosm of her pain as his own.

That, to me, feels like the final component of our modern guilt in 2018: a prevailing obligation take on a portion of the suffering or misgivings of the entire connected world. Where the more news you consume or “connected” you are, any empathy you possess begins to feels like a defect as the Online Social Contract demands you to constantly feel down.

In my personal life, I feel very successful and fulfilled. I have a wife and child with a job where I am respected and makes me financially solvent. I am in control of my own destiny, and feel empowered by it. From that perspective, I am 100% fulfilled.

Still though, I don’t need to look online outside of my tiny world to find news that is Bad, or that a prevailing trend or something I consume is Bad. Often, such news will be tailored and pop onto your phone without you even seeking it out. It’s hard to feel personally fulfilled when aspects of the world around you feels so bleak.

Beck distills this sentiment with his most personal moment on the record, and one of the few lines that feels like it earnestly of his own voice:

I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased

But I still want to please you.

The metaphysical “you” feels like a greek choir of moral judgement, saying you are Wrong or not Good enough in the face of a world you ultimately cannot effectively change.

It’s hard to imagine what the reception of Modern Guilt would be today, given that it feels so thematically appropriate for our time. While Danger Mouse’s production still sounds unique to me, he’s been prolific in so many genres and has so many imitators that perhaps it musically would sound rote. In terms of Beck’s career, it was probably smarter that he releases pop-bait tracks like “Dreams” and I am forced to listen them as grocery store background music for the rest of my days.

Modern Guilt ultimately feels like Beck’s Pinkerton–an album that wasn’t given the kudos that it deserved at the time and resulted in artistic over-corrections that changed his career trajectory for the worst. 

It’s a shame, because a world-weary Beck feels more essential then ever. Beck’s existential musing off of Modern Guilt feel very prescient in 2018, and echo a variety of fits and moods I get into when I binge-follow events of the day online. At the very least, it’s a good reminder to log off.

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