Beck Took A Weird, Wonderful Detour And Somehow Became The Funk Lord Of The USA

Beck’s career has involved a lot of evolution. He began as a pseudo manifestation of mid-’90s slackerdom, thanks to “Loser” and its music video. These days, he’s a dude who makes laid-back folk rock that wins Grammys. Not any weird, low-level Grammys, either. His Morning Phase won Album of the Year. However, on the way from sample-dropping ironic rapper to soulful guitar strummer, Beck took a major detour in 1999 to make Midnite Vultures. It’s ridiculous, and it’s also his best album.

People didn’t know what to make of Midnite Vultures when it was released. To this day, it still baffles and vexes some. The prevailing question, in the immortal words of The Flop House’s Stuart Wellington, was, “Is this a bit?” There is some justification for this. When a guy like Beck suddenly drops a funky R&B album on you, you’re going to wonder if he is for real. The fact the opening track and big single, was a song called “Sexx Laws,” with a music video featuring kitchen appliances involved in sordid sexual congress, will make people think you’re havin’ a laugh.

The album is supremely goofy, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean Beck is being ironic. It doesn’t mean the overarching premise of Midnite Vultures is, “Hey, look at me, a scrawny white guy, making music like I’m Marvin Gaye.” Songs like “Hollywood Freaks” don’t help, sure. That song is clearly a joke. But the joke isn’t on funk or R&B. The joke seems to be on Beck, in a tongue-in-cheek way. He’s having fun, or so it seems, and that fun permeates the album. The lyrics are decidedly silly at times, but you’re supposed to laugh at their silliness. There is a healthy middle ground between an ironic joke and somber self-seriousness, after all.

However, when you boil it down, the level of sincerity in this album is only truly known in Beck’s Scientology-loving brain. What we can all understand, though, is the music, which is fantastic. Regardless of Beck’s level of commitment to crafting funky R&B lyrics, he made some real deal funky R&B music. This is a Prince album done through the prism of Beck’s earlier indie rock sensibilities. It’s not all funky brass, of course. “Beautiful Way” is a more countrified slice of music that would have worked on some of his more recent albums. It makes it stick out, but it’s still good. Sonically, this album is almost unimpeachable. If it was an instrumental album, you would never would have guessed it was made by Beck.

Beck is almost solely responsible for the album’s sound, too. He played several instruments, co-produced the album alongside the likes of The Dust Brothers, mixed the album, and arranged the horns. This is perhaps not surprising from a guy who once released an “album” that was nothing but sheet music.

If you listen to Midnite Vultures, Beck will probably make you laugh intentionally, and, perhaps, unintentionally. He will almost assuredly having you movin’ and a groovin’ though. If it is a joke, it’s an amazing sounding joke. Regardless, it was a worthy detour for Beck. He proved he can be as funky as any musician and get away with it.