Rock critics shouldn't be allowed to review albums till the 19th go-round -- long after the initial buzz has worn off, long after the thrill (or, for that matter, terror) of listening to something for the first time has dissipated. Beck
Were such a rule in place, there wouldn't exist so much revisionist history, back-tracking, back-stabbing, apologizing. So much praise has been heaped upon so many artists -- most undeserving, but of course -- that to attack their work days, months, or years later is considered heresy; all too often, critics are labeled traitors when they begin to turn on their former heroes, when, quite simply, they've simply begun to listen to what they only heard way back when. God only knows how many times My Favorite Album has gone in the trade-back-to-CD-World pile; God only knows how many times I've wondered, months later, what the hell I was thinking when I put the Replacements' All Shook Down or Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad or any post-Blood and Chocolate Elvis Costello disc or anything by Sonic Youth on one of those year-end best-of lists. Sometimes, it's just impossible to be both fan and critic, to listen with both the heart and the brain. Too often, those organs get in arguments, each insisting the other doesn't know what the fuck it's talking about. Yeah, like I have to tell you.
For about 43 minutes in early November, I was convinced Beck's Midnite Vultures was a masterpiece, the culmination of a young genius' lifelong fixation with black American music. From Folkways to funk lays in just a handful of years -- damn, it seemed so magical the first time the barely white Barry White yearning for that girl named "Debra" flexed his mighty love muscle. "Hollywood Freaks," for a time, sounded like the sharpest Chronic rip since Dre rolled himself a fat blunt filled with his own Vibe press clippings. And "Peaches and Cream" appeared to be the super-freakiest sumpin-sumpin since Rick James landed his ass behind bars. Midnite Vultures was, for an instant, the kind of disc that puts a smile on a corpse; shit was so dope they could have sold it in dime bags for a quarter. But the third, fourth, fifth trip through Beck Hansen's boogie wonderland revealed the harsh, inevitable truth: His latest disc is nothing more than a joke in search of a punch line, a WB sitcom with the dead man's laugh track rolled up to 12. Somewhere, between the slip-and-slide brilliance of "Loser" and the yo-yo-uh-yo? smirk of "Get Real Paid," Beck became just another wonderboy infatuated with his own prowess. Midnite Vultures, smeared in Al Jolson's greasepaint, is nothing but borrowed brilliance, cut-and-paste flash -- a comedy album, really, that loses a little more of its charm with each spin.
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Go back and listen to 1998's Mutations or even 1994's One Foot in the Grave -- ya know, back when the skinny little white dude wrote songs. Those two discs -- which Beck refers to as his "parenthetical" releases, as though he can simply shove them to the margins while UniGram pushes the Big Product -- will one day be regarded as his tiny masterpieces, long after Mellow Gold and Odelay and Midnite Vultures have landed in the Nice Price bins. They're his most substantive releases because they're his most heartfelt, his most sincere, and, in the case of Mutations, his most exquisite and elegant. On songs such as "Asshole," "I Get Lonesome," "Nobody's Fault But My Own," "Canceled Checks," and "Dead Melodies" -- not to mention his contributions to More Oar, The Hi-Lo Country soundtrack, and Grievous Angel -- he doesn't get bogged down in irony, doesn't feel it necessary to doll up in glitter suits and Elton John specs and play low-rent, lo-fi Tom Jones to the smirky pomo crowd. Yes, they're still cut-and-paste creations -- a little country here, a little tropicalia there, so much space-rock in the spaces between -- but they're absorbed influences, a learned language uttered in a brand-new way. Midnight Vultures sounds like a disc made by a guy who just bought a worn-out Car Wash soundtrack from Snoop Dogg.
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