Since the release of 2008’s astoundingly mediocre Modern Guilt, Beck has all but stepped away from conventional rockstardom. He’s spent the past few years on idiosyncratic projects like the Record Club, a collaboration with such luminaries as Annie Clark, Angus Andrews, Devendra Banhart, Thurston Moore, Jeff Tweedy, and, uh, Giovanni Ribisi. Beck assembled these Superfriends of Indie at his Los Angeles studios to cover classic albums like The Velvet Underground & Nico, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Yanni Live at the Acropolis, because why not. The results were ramshackle and frequently annoying, but you get the impression that the Record Club re-imaginings were always meant to be things that were more fun to make than to listen to. Beck was also remixing everyone from Lykke Li to Philip Glass, as well as writing songs for Charlotte Gainsbourg, comic book movies, various vampire-based media, and video games, amongst other things. Last year, he released an album, but only in one nigh-obsolescent format: sheet music.
So it seemed that while Beck was interested in staying busy and producing music, he was done with the spotlight. No more crazy touring and break-dancing and puppet shows; it was now time to jam with your friends, contribute to soundtracks, and let the new kids get a chance to shine. But last week, Beck stepped back out of the shadows. Well, sort of.
To launch Lincoln’s “Hello-Again” campaign (a vain attempt to get twentysomethings interested in buying Towncars, now that their customer base has all but died off), they commissioned a cover of David Bowie’s classic “Sound & Vision” from the ’90s Indie darling. But, as the above video proves, this was no mere cover. Beck enlisted the help of 160+ musicians, including a gospel choir, a drum line, a gamelan orchestra, horn and string section, neo-soul group the Dap Kings, a harpist, guitarists playing everything from fancy electro-acoustics to flying vs, a bunch of mandolinists, a dude playing a singing saw, another dude playing a theremin (aka the sci-fi singing saw), and a frigging yodeler, all conducted by noted composer, Scientologist, and Ron Paul supporter David Campbell, who, by the by, is also Becks father. All of this is staged 360º around a slowly rotating audience (watch the video; it’ll make sense) with Mr. Beck Hansen strumming and singing his heart out in the dead center.
The whole thing is an experiment in maximalism that goes beyond the absurdly large backing band; Beck & Co. stretch Bowie’s pared-down proto-new wave song (which, by my count, lyrically consists of less of fifty words) into a nine minute plus, multi-movement opus. Yet it’s not decadent or tacky (okay, maybe a little, but in a good way); the elaborate, intertwining arrangements and Beck’s radical reinterpretation of the original turn it into something bold, new, and truly moving. It never feels excessive, and each instrument and voice is in service of the song. While it wouldn’t work without those 160+ musicians, it’s all really about our man Beck at center stage, not just singing but performing, basking in the spotlight for the first time in a good long while.
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