THE CON­TIN­U­ING EVO­LU­TION OF BECK

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Dy­lan Owens

n 2002, Beck ar­ranged an am­bush for him­self in Den­ver. He came to play a set at the Tem­ple Events Cen­ter, a cen­tury-old syn­a­gogue in­set with mas­sive stained-glass win­dows around its cir­cu­lar hall. A far cry from Beck’s pre­vi­ous show in the city — a funk bac­cha­nal at the 8,000-per­son Mag­ness Arena in 2000 that cli­maxed with his band cozy­ing up on a red vel­vet bed low­ered from the rafters — the hal­lowed hall was meant to sig­nal a change in tone from the sex­ual ab­sur­dity of “Mid­nite Vul­tures,” his pre­vi­ous al­bum. The night would pre­view a mys­te­ri­ous new di­rec­tion for Beck that would man­i­fest it­self as his next record, fit­tingly called “Sea Change.”

Acous­tic gui­tars in hand, Beck and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Smokey Hormel met the crowd with a set of shiv­er­ing folk and blues songs, a mix­ture of old stan­dards like Hank Wil­liams’ “I’m So Lone­some I Could Cry” and un­re­leased orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions in the same vein. Some in the crowd yelled out for Beck’s break­through hit “Loser” at points — a harsh word to hear when you’re bar­ing your soul.

“‘Sea Change’ hadn’t come out, so people were won­der­ing what the hell we were do­ing, play­ing all these down­cast acous­tic songs,” Beck said in a phone in­ter­view from his home­town of Los Angeles, call­ing it “the an­ti­dote” to the psy­che­delic free-forall of his pre­vi­ous tour.

Beck will play two shows in Colorado in the com­ing days, July 9 as the head­liner of Tel­luride’s Ride Fes­ti­val and July 11 at a sold­out Red Rocks show with the Preser­va­tion Hall Jazz Band. Once again, it’s dif­fi­cult to say which ver­sion of Beck — who turns 47 on Satur­day — we’ll get. Sim­i­lar to his “Sea Change” gig, the shows will kick off a stint of dates ahead of mur­murs of a new al­bum, the fol­low-up to 2014’s “Morn­ing Phase.”

Lushly mu­si­cal, the al­bum won three Gram­mys, in­clud­ing Al­bum of the Year, beat­ing out Bey­oncé, thus prompt­ing her ra­bid fan base to take to tweet #WhoIsBeck en masse.

There’s prob­a­bly a timeline where Beck rides this strain of smol­der­ing folk rock off into his sun­set years to po­lite ac­claim. This isn’t it. By all ap­pear­ances, his lat­est al­bum is as grand of a de­par­ture as “Sea Change,” al­beit em­brac­ing in­stead of avoid­ing dumb fun.

The re­lease has been kept hush, but it’s telling that he’s cho­sen to kick off his lat­est tour at Ride, which caters to the sort of breezy fes­ti­val crowd Beck cred­its as in­flu­enc­ing his lat­est al­bum. Here, an­other shift: Once point­edly con­fronta­tional — he all but ripped an armpit fart solo at his first show in Colorado in 1994, de­spite at­tract­ing enough fans to sell out the de­funct Boul­der venue Ground Zero three times over, ac­cord­ing to Doug Kauff­man, who pro­moted the show — Beck doesn’t merely em­brace his live shows, but also now con­sid­ers them “the only ar­gu­ment for sell­ing records.”

“These shows from the last five years have been very memorable and cel­e­bra­tory,” Beck said. “It’s what I’d en­vi­sioned when I started out.”

The al­bum’s two pre-re­lease sin­gles hint at what he’s talk­ing about. Re­leased last year, both “Dreams” and “Wow” are er­ratic pop Franken­steins, leash­ing dozens of op­pos­ing ideas to a com­mon di­rec­tive: Shred the rug, soul-ex­ca­vat­ing metaphors be damned. He still sees holes in what he could con­sider an air­tight fes­ti­val set, Beck said, but these tracks al­ready sound like spackle.

Writ­ing the new al­bum has been a cel­e­bra­tion trial and er­ror — each project “re­quires a sort of hu­mil­ity to re­al­ize that you re­ally don’t know any­thing,” he said — as is of­ten the case when he steps in the stu­dio. Some ideas pan out fairly quickly; others are scat­tered seed. “Sea Change” ges­tated for a decade be­fore it saw re­lease, Beck said in the way of an ex­am­ple. Other, older ideas are still on the shelf.

“There are records I’ve made that I haven’t put out,” Beck said. “I did a record in the ’90s — very elec­tronic, in­flu­enced by Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk and other weird kinds of elec­tronic stuff I was find­ing in Ja­pan at the time. Some ver­sion of that, some­thing in that vein, will come out at some point.”

Beck has been cross-pol­li­nat­ing with people more than places lately, though, an­other con­se­quence of the artist- and idea-rich fes­ti­val cir­cuit. He’s brought the “Seven Na­tion Army”-fa­mous Jack White in the stu­dio to lay down bass on a track, tapped hip­ster priest Fa­ther John Misty as a back-up singer, and even put the per­for­mance onus on his fans with “Song Reader,” an al­bum orig­i­nally re­leased only as sheet mu­sic. Last year, he in­vited Sean Fore­man, of Boul­der party-rap duo 3OH!3, to work a ses­sion for his lat­est al­bum.

For how splashy those crossovers have been, a re­cent trip to see New Or­leans’ Preser­va­tion Hall Jazz Band, who he’ll share the stage at Red Rocks with on Tues­day, was a re­minder of the fun­da­men­tals. He caught the band at Preser­va­tion Hall, the sto­ried French Quar­ter venue from which it takes its name, a peg­board-walled space the size of a liv­ing room.

Here was the root of col­lab­o­ra­tion — in­stru­ments and people in a room, trans­lat­ing each other’s ideas through their fil­ters — laid bare. From the goofrap of “Loser” to the open­heart blues of “Morn­ing Phase,” Beck is just that: a lens for mu­sic’s move­ments and moods, skew­ing gen­res just enough to ex­pose their seams.

“I al­ways try to have per­spec­tive of pop­u­lar cul­ture. If you were trans­ported to 1954, you’d prob­a­bly be hor­ri­fied with pop­u­lar mu­sic,” Beck said, ref­er­enc­ing Frank Si­na­tra’s in­fa­mous duet “Mama Will Bark,” a nov­elty song he recorded with Amer­i­can ac­tress Dag­mar that scraped the Bill­board Top 20 charts.

Above all, that per­spec­tive has in­stilled an al­most holy rev­er­ence for the tra­di­tion of mu­sic, a slip­stream of cre­ative en­ergy that con­nects the next Beck al­bum — or any bed­room com­po­si­tion — back to the fur­thest reaches of hu­man­ity. In his purview, ev­ery great song is a crys­tal­liza­tion of thou­sands of other pieces of mu­sic that came be­fore it; each “Moonlight Sonata” a glit­ter gem of in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“When you’ve been play­ing for a cer­tain num­ber of years, you re­al­ize we’re all work­ing on a song to­gether. Maybe one or two things will emerge for the ages,” he said. “Did you write it? Did I write it? No, but ev­ery­body kind of played their part in the end. That’s the beauty of pop­u­lar mu­sic.”

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