Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Beck

  • Loser [DGC, 1994] *
  • Mellow Gold [Bong Load/DGC, 1994] A
  • One Foot in the Grave [K, 1994] *
  • Stereopathetic Soul Manure [Flipside, 1994] B+
  • Beercan [DGC, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Odelay [DGC, 1996] A-
  • Mutations [DGC, 1998] A-
  • Midnite Vultures [Interscope, 1999] *
  • Stray Blues [Geffen, 2000] Neither
  • Sea Change [DGC, 2002] B
  • Guero [Interscope, 2005] ***
  • The Information [Interscope, 2006] B+
  • Modern Guilt [Interscope, 2008] Choice Cuts

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Loser [DGC, 1994]
his greatest hit, an album demo, and two-for-three prime odds and ends ("Fume," "Alcohol") *

Mellow Gold [Bong Load/DGC, 1994]
His clip file is home to a bigheaded kid who's memorized Bob Dylan's Playboy interview, a slacker version of the Pretentious Asshole--here a folkie there a punk everywhere an image-slinger (with absurdist tendencies, mais oui). But his album barely contains an exuberant experimenter whose verbiage coheres on record--either because he knows records are history or because repetition tamps down the loose ends. He's a folkie-punk version of, well, the Young Bob Dylan, except that he also loves hooks enough to cast his net wider than the Young David Johansen, finding them everywhere from an electric sitar to an illicitly taped tirade from a "Vietnam vet playin' air guitar" downstairs. Full of fun and loaded with 'tude, he doesn't care what you think of him and makes you love it, right down to the nose-thumbing bummer dirges that close each side. Proving how cool you are by making an album that sounds like shit is easy. Proving how cool you are by making an album that comes this close to sounding like shit is damn hard--unless you're damn talented. A

One Foot in the Grave [K, 1994]
his one-offs top Calvin Johnson's keepers ("He's a Mighty Good Leader," "Asshole") *

Stereopathetic Soul Manure [Flipside, 1994]
The absurdist neofolkie as goofball abuser, most strikingly in ("ironic"?) rural guise--hick hermit, acoustic bluesman, wallower in honky-tonk lamentation. Satan, tacos, and aphids make multiple appearances, as does a crazy alien's unnatural falsetto. Cultish, and less than the sum of its inconsistent parts. But the offhand dazzle of these odds and sods is the stuff cults are made of. B+

Beercan [DGC, 1994]
"Got No Mind" Choice Cuts

Odelay [DGC, 1996]
Hipsters are wary of "Loser." It was a "novelty," they fret; frat boys liked it. So one reason they swear by this entry pass for denizens of the Club Club is that except for a touch of hip hop retro there's nothing so easy to swallow here. Not quite forbidding, it embeds its lyricism in soundscape, and only prolonged, well-intentioned exposure will enable outsiders to get inside its skilled flow and ramshackle sonic architecture. Worth the effort, absolutely. But for me, its unpretentious aural array, which shares an aesthetic with contemporary hip hop from Tricky to Wu-Tang, doesn't evoke any more specifically than its lyrics do. What's more, I doubt it signifies for anybody else either--except in the personal-to-arbitrary unreadability of its individual sound choices. When fragmentation is your cultural condition, heroism means trying to make it sing. A-

Mutations [DGC, 1998]
Mellow Gold's loser thumbed his nose at the world; Odelay's winner put his mark on it. On this adjustment to musical fashion, a success story discovers what he already knew but hadn't seen up close--eventually, winners lose. No longer immersed in failure, which you joke about (and then beat), he takes on decay, which you hold at bay (for a while). Although he hones his insults when the occasion arises, forget jokes--he's in mourning for dead relationships and the bodily passing they prefigure, and he sounds it. But because he's kept up with the times, he also sounds lyrical and elegiac, evoking the soft nostalgia of folk-rock without falling into it. Embracing the new directness, he feints and sidesteps just like always, exploiting a fad's expressive potential like the shape-shifter he remains. A-

Midnite Vultures [Interscope, 1999]
Does eventually get funky, if anybody cares but me ("Pressure Zone," "Peaches & Cream," "Debra"). *

Stray Blues [Geffen, 2000] Neither

Sea Change [DGC, 2002]
How painful the calculation to become sincere, how arduous the labor to find one's ease. Nobody's saying he isn't talented, and there are some fetching tunes here. But when the most impressive thing about slow songpoetry is the string writing, somebody doesn't have his heart in it, and even if it's not his fault 'cause he doesn't have one, his dolor ends up as cold as his funk. For some that's the idea--a little affectlessness helps the prettiness go down. But whatever irony diehards believe, emotion and intelligence aren't mutually exclusive. Any argument to the contrary calls for active resistance. B

Guero [Interscope, 2005]
Is that the world ending in his rearview mirror, or just his career? ("Rental Car," "Earthquake Weather," "Qué Onda, Guero"). ***

The Information [Interscope, 2006]
Because he's also the poster child of '90s irony, which morphed so neatly into the passivity '00s alt-rockers pit against evil, the poster child of information overload doesn't quite get down to cases here. But unlike Guero this one really has some war in it--makes "a kick drum sound like an SOS" and turns a homeless woman into a soldier in Iraq. The best song addresses a chronic problem clearly for once: "I think I'm in love and it makes me kind of nervous to say so." "Dark Star" despairs so resolutely it could make a dead man grateful. B+

Modern Guilt [Interscope, 2008]
"Walls" Choice Cuts