Beck's new album, Modern Guilt, features singer Cat Power on several tracks and was co-produced by Danger Mouse.
Back in the early '90s, Beck Hansen was more awkward, skinny white kid than rock star. His quirky classic, "Loser," introduced listeners to his most endearing quality: humor.
Much of Beck's early work is infused with a sharp comic tone. Think songs with titles like "Sissyneck" and "Satan Gave Me a Taco." But in the past few years, his records have become more serious — his latest, called Modern Guilt, may be his darkest yet.
Beck recently spoke with host Renee Montagne about his new approach. It's not that he sees things differently now, he says — it's just that when he started out, his first instinct was to go for a laugh.
"I came out of playing in coffeehouses and bars, so really, just as a performer, that was kind of a survival mechanism," Beck says. "Because you had to be heard over a crowd, or playing in between the bands that people actually came to see. So the humor was something that just sort of helped me get people's attention, I guess."
Many of his early songs, he says, were about people he knew. "I had some pretty eccentric neighbors, and a lot of what I encountered in life at the time went right into the songs," he says.
His new material, however, has darker undercurrents. Lyrically, songs like "Volcano" and the title track can come off as depressed, apocalyptic, anxious.
For Beck, it isn't necessarily a conscious decision, though.
"The way a lot of my songs are written — I write the music first, and I record it, and then with a song like 'Modern Guilt,' I just get on the microphone and I write something really quick, sort of off the top of my head so I can remember the melody," he says. "And what happens a lot of times is that what I initially sing on there ends up being on the record. A lot of these things, I don't really get to spend too much time figuring out what it is."
Beck says that going with simple lyrics often works better in songs, unless it's something like talking blues or rap. He says that his recited style of delivery doesn't necessarily come from those worlds, either.
"It doesn't come from hip-hop," he says. "I used to hang out with a lot of poets and people who did spoken word. So I think I thought my rap — quote 'rap' — songs were coming from that."
It also came from his grandfather, Beck says. Al Hansen was an important member of the Fluxus movement, a network of avant-garde artists in the 1960s.
"My grandfather was an artist, and he came up in New York in the '40s and '50s," Beck says. "And he spoke in that kind of zoot-suit hipster lingo of that time. You know, the Beats. And I think I had a lot of influence from him."
Beck says he never really got to know his grandfather while he was alive — but he does remember his grandfather's speech.
"He had a lot of made-up words, or what seemed to be made-up words," Beck says. "He was just riffing all the time. You know, it was 'broken-down traffic miasma, we boogied uptown over here,' and whatnot, and this and that. It was all just rolling off of his tongue."
Beck and Al Hansen also share the concept of collage. But while Beck's is a mash-up of different audio formats and styles, his grandfather used found objects to create his visual artwork.
"He liked to say he was an alchemist," Beck says. "But really, it was that he was broke. He couldn't afford art materials. So I think he decided early on, 'I'm going to make art out of what I have around,' which was candy wrappers and cigarette butts. When I was a child, he used to send us to the garbage can. When we were at a restaurant, we'd go to all the ashtrays that were left — we used to collect all the cigarette butts for him for his artwork."
Beck says he never wrote music with his grandfather specifically in mind. But he might still.
"I think I have an assignment now," he says.