Over the past decade, Beck has wrestled with two fairly distinct musical personas, giving each one entire albums to gestate: There's the hip-hop-embracing, sample-crazy fun-lover (Midnite Vultures, Guero) and then there's the master of atmospheric downer-folk (Mutations, Sea Change). His last disc, 2006's The Information, bridged that gap somewhat, but with its layered production—courtesy of Nigel Godrich—and general briskness, it leaned toward the former. Modern Guilt introduces a modified version of the sad-sack Beck, one who's less depressed, a little angrier, and perhaps most importantly, willing to set aside meticulousness for what amounts to a quick-and-dirty (relatively speaking) rock (again, relatively speaking) record.
That might come as a shock to those expecting production by Danger Mouse to result in Gnarls Beckley; Modern Guilt does feature some incredibly inventive beats and atmosphere, but they're deployed in service of seriously dark lyrics. Things start strong with the peppy psych-folk of "Orphans," which features one of two guest vocals from Cat Power's Chan Marshall, and "Gamma Ray," whose nonsensical lyrics ("Your brains are bored / Like a refugee from a house that's burning") recall old-school Beck. Start listening closely around "Chemtrails," though, and the darkness really creeps in: "Down by the sea, swallowed by evil / We've already drowned."
"Youthless" is another light/dark example; its insistent, funky bass is juxtaposed with deliberately clipped vocals and brilliantly gloomy words. It's the gateway to Modern Guilt's superior second half, which includes "Walls"—featuring a terrific sloppy-cloppy beat—and "Replica," whose jittery, Squarepusher-like stutter is enough to earn Danger Mouse his pay. The short disc leans to a close with "Volcano," which feels like a Sea Change track played with extra dread and a ray of hope, with Beck detailing despair over an orchestral wash ("I've been drinking all these tears so long / All I've got left is the taste of salt in my mouth") before deciding he doesn't want to fall in. Odelay this surely isn't, but Beck it surely is—a chameleon who changes colors just enough to keep himself interested.