Dr. Genius

Beck
w/the Flaming Lips

Benaroya Hall, Sat Nov 30,
$35, 8 pm.

If Beck were a horse and I were a betting man, then I wager he'd be a Shetland pony with a long, luxurious mane. Wait a minute; that doesn't make any sense. Beck has baby-fine hair. The kind of hair that men start to lose in their 30s. Which begs the question: What kind of album would a newly bald Beck make? I'd like to think it would sound like his recent Sea Change. Forlorn ballads born from the experience of someone who has loved, lost, and seen the capricious, fickle flashlight of fame turn its bright light on others as he grew older. Songs made by someone who no longer has the weight of expectation heaped upon his bony shoulders--for in the land where Eminem is king, the pony shall be free.

That's not a bad position to be in. Just ask Jackson Browne. Wait. Bad example. Don't ask Jackson Browne. Hmmm. Ask Leonard Cohen! No, still not right. I know--ask David Bowie. That's more like it. A genre-bender from the old school, ever on the lookout for new takes and salient collaborations. He always finds a way to keep his one-man show interesting (at least I think he has--I haven't listened to any of his albums since Let's Dance, but I'm sure they're all fine and vital). Bowie is also great at wiping the slate clean with every release. No more Ziggy. No more thin white guy. No more thinner white guy. Now he's a mime! Now he's a banker!

And Beck has done the exact same thing with Sea Change. No more junkyard imagery. No more robots doing the robot at the robot rodeo. No more dorky rapping or falsetto soul-man squeals. Nope--now you get loner folkie Beck right out of the pages of MOJO, or the record-collector-scum dreams of an inveterate eBayer. In fact, he's every loner folkie rolled up into one, because he's heard all their albums.

And he's great at it--because he's so talented that he could probably tackle doo-wop or zydeco and make it work. Beck is a focused, committed, ambitious doer and maker of art. Don't ever count him out down the road--he'll trick you, like a malevolent trickster monkey god. Plus, Sea Change is just so darn pretty. I'm under its spell.

I don't know how Beck knew the release of his album would coincide with the official end of the age of irony, but that's what makes all-seeing Zeitgeist pulse-taker artist types who they are. First there's the hipster groundswell that lays the foundation. The years of Belle & Sebastian's arch drudgery and public-school hijinks. Then, the Antonioni-inspired desert mopery of Mojave 3. Before you know it, Low is playing live in a church, and blammo! the stage is set for the heavyweight to reclaim his belt. And how can you deny him when you hear a perfect retro concoction like "Sunday Sun"?

Naysayers like to point out Beck's theft (on "Round the Bend") of Nick Drake's "River Man." Ha! As if Nick Drake didn't rip off hundreds of years of British troubadour and minstrel tradition. Who's the thief now? (On second thought, forget everything I said about that hipster groundswell. The "Pink Moon" Volkswagen ad was probably all it took.) Look, all artists steal; the mark of a great artist is that he or she steals from someone the majority of the population has never heard of.

It's hard to believe that nine years have passed since "Loser" first hit the airwaves. That's a lot of supposedly disposable cultural debris to sift through. When you first heard "Loser," did you think that a decade later you would be listening to that shaggy, mumbly, flannel-clad slacker singing a set of meticulously crafted, string-laden folk-pop songs that revel in the misery of heartbreak and senseless Sunday ennui? Did you think you would have a life by now? I know I did. I thought Beck was funny--crawling around on the set of MTV's 120 Minutes like an indie Harpo Marx. There's no way in hell I thought he'd still be around. I had no idea that he was an artist who wanted to try new things and dress up bankrupt sounds in new clothes to remind people that there's always stuff they miss between the cracks.