I didn't realize what exactly my problem has been with Beck's recent output until the fourth song of Saturday night's show at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a cover of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Bob Dylan's wry, funny, bitter blues song from 1965's Blonde on Blonde. Here is the song from the album, followed by a tragically brief live version from the documentary No Direction Home.
Note Dylan's phrasing, the way he glides through the words, “you look so pretty in it/Can I jump on it sometime.” He fills the lines with a conversational, suave tone. It's like he's standing at a fancy cocktail party talking to a socialite, trying to keep her off-balance by coupling the polite with the bawdy, before slipping an invective insult about one big hat and one tiny head: “it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine.” His voice roams the register, delivering meaning and tone, like he's not just singing the lines that he wrote, but acting them out, filling them with drama and nuance and feeling. He cares about the words, and you can tell.
In Beck's version, shown above at Outside Lands in San Francisco a few weeks ago, each line is delivered mostly monochromatically. Beck takes the easy way out, singing almost exactly note-for-note the main melody line of the song. There's little variation, little sense that he's actually manifesting the words the way that Dylan does. In addition to Beck's version being absolutely unsurprising musically — it's your basic 12-bar blues number — I never get the sense that Beck's brain is actively engaged with the words. He doesn't even sing the last line of the insult about the mattress and the bottle of wine. Come on, man, that's a great line.
Now, I loved the show the other night. I'm a huge Beck fan, have been since day one. I will follow him anywhere — though it drives me crazy when he sings like he has marbles in his mouth, which he does from time to time. But it seems as though contentment has bred a certain emotional laziness in his new music. With a few exceptions — most notably, “Volcano” and “Soul of a Man” — I don't get the sense on Modern Guilt (or, for that matter, The Information) that anything's at stake.
(Photo by Timothy Norris. Click on image to view the entire slideshow.)
The yin and yang of Beck was in full view Saturday night. He dropped beat-heavy rockers and electro-bashers before sliding into a second set with the
L.A. Philharmonic’s string section Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Strings to get mellow and sad with the sold out crowd. Dipping from all over his ever-expanding catalog, he dropped dance-heavy gems – “Nausea,” “Mixed Business” (from his underrated classic, Midnight Vultures) – that liquefied the crowd. At one point, he stood with his four-piece band at the front of the stage with five beat-boxes for a funky breakdown of “Hell Yes” and “Black Tambourine.”
The second half of the show, which featured Beck's father David Campbell conducting the
Phil's string section Bowl Orchestra strings, was highlighted by huge renditions of, among others, “Missing,” “Paper Tiger” and “Lonesome Tears.” In those songs, you knew Beck felt them, you knew that something profound happened during their creation, and Beck with strings amplified that emotion.
No, I'm not wishing tragedy or pain upon Beck. If he's content, bully for him. But I wish that he would dig a little deeper, dredge up the gunk and the pain and manifest it in his songs. It's good he's happy. But happiness seldom creates durable art.
Setlist: Beck at the Hollywood Bowl, September 20, 2008
6. Mixed Bizness
7. Devil's Haircut
9. Soul of a Man
10. Gamma Ray
11. Hell Yes
12. Black Tambourine
(enter Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Strings, with David Campbell conducting)
13. Modern Guilt
14. Paper Tiger
15. Think I'm In Love
17. Lonesome Tears
19. Round the Bend
21. Where It's At