The authenticity police are really going to have his punk white ass this time. After eating the previous four decades of popular culture and dropping the ornate, star-spangled, almost infinitely pleasurable aural turd called ‘Odelay’, now Beck Hansen has the temerity for its spiritual successor to offer up what is, in substantial part, a Prince album.
Not an album by TAFKAP or Squiggle or whatever he is nowadays, but the Prince of mid-’80s purple patch legend, of raspberry berets, orgiastic funkfests and real, uninhibited, drop-down-dirty fun. Unsurprisingly, it’s brilliant. The other bits where Beck sounds like Beck aren’t bad, either. But does he mean any of it? And even if he does, do we believe him? Can this formerly fragile, asexual spaceboy convince as a “full-grown man” more than casually acquainted with the lexicon of luuurrrve?
This is a very ’90s dilemma. Articulate, chameleonic stars were the norm 20 or 30 years ago, but rock’n’roll has become so institutionalised that at this late stage it’s necessary to be unambiguously 4 Real in order to justify one’s involvement with the lame old cur. Beck has always kept ahead of this game, but ‘Midnite Vultures’ is audacious even by his standards.
After a slight, anomalous opener, the ersatz Hanna-Barbera cartoon theme ‘Sexx Laws’, ‘Nicotine & Gravy’ sees Beck taking his libido for a walk in Paisley Park. “I’ll feed you fruit that don’t exist/I’ll leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed,”, he coos in a coquettish drawl that grows steadily less inhibited over the course of the next four songs. ‘Mixed Bizness’, wherein the author’s “mixing fitness with leather” and can make “all the lesbians scream”, is a crazed, up-funk highstepper, the Tom Tom Club writhing on a mauve rug. The ruptured electro of ‘Get Real Paid’ (“I know you really want it/’Cos your daddy’s always on it”) leads with hip-hopological good sense into ‘Hollywood Freaks’, a slouchy Dust Brothers-produced G-funk celebration/ parody of the high-rolling lifestyles of the rich and infamous.
By now, the little big man has located an unnerving falsetto, used to devastating effect on the full-on robotic P-funk ‘Peaches & Cream’, which cops the keyboard strafe from ‘Crazy Horses’ and wherein Beck possibly pre-empts the sceptics who by this point will be despairing at the extent of his unfettered magpie tendencies: “Give those pious soldiers another lollipop/’Cos we’re on the good ship manage et tois” (sic).
Suck on this, in other words. Thereafter, he meanders through altogether more expected, if not completely familiar, Hansen vistas – beat-box metal, bombastic blues, and the candlelit beach-baby folk of ‘Beautiful Way’, the sole nod to the beatific crooner from last year’s ‘Mutations’ – but there’s never a dip in the horny pulsebeat.
‘Midnite Vultures’ is bound to entrench opinions on both sides of the Beck divide. The doubters will recoil from its myriad layers of self-knowledge and the fact that the author’s tongue is almost permanently lodged in one cheek or another. But just because this isn’t a conventional dose of ‘reality’ doesn’t mean Beck can’t be sincere, and the force of character laid bare here is quite an awesome thing to behold. Narrower in scope than ‘Odelay’ but more immediate in impact, it’s clearly been conceived as an accompaniment to our hedonistic habit of choice, the last great party album of the millennium. And like a certain song says, parties weren’t meant to last