The Four Faces of Beck

Summing up the career of Beck Hansen is like trying to cram the entire history of music into a  cookie jar. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll Renaissance man, a left-field weirdo turned superstar, a maestro of pop who’s color-blind when it comes to genre, and possibly the whitest musician ever who can still drop bars like he was born to rhyme. Beck’s path has been one long, twisting rabbit hole of sharp turns and aesthetic reinventions. And he’s amassed one of the most unique and utterly fun canons in recent pop history, one that breaks down the barriers between countless styles and scenes for the sake of reveling in the endless possibilities of music.

As we sit on the eve of Beck’s 10 studio album Colors, we took the opportunity to revisit his many alternate personas, and examine the ways in which his various sonic detours seem to both contradict and complement one another simultaneously. Whether it’s in the hip-hop zaniness of Odelay, the wounded folk ballads of Sea Change, the tricked-out funk of Midnite Vultures, or the charged-up alt-rock of Guero, Beck always seems to find a way to fit his many musical whims into the same playful, surreal universe, pulling off each experiment with the visionary confidence of a pro. It’s anyone’s guess as to which direction he’ll choose next, but for now, join us as we unmask the Four Faces of Beck.

BECK: THE ALT-ROCK HERO

It’s no accident that Beck’s rise to fame coincided with a cultural moment for freakdom; the ‘90s alternative boom made the perfect breeding ground for his slacker-friendly version of rock, and Beck did his homework on how to sound like a total dropout. Early winners like “Devils Haircut” and “Lord Only Knows” illustrated Beck’s uncanny ability to make classic country, boom-bap, and power pop feel like slightly different versions of the same thing, all fueled by a giddy and inextinguishable energy. His later forays into rock, such as the stomping “E-Pro” or his work on the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World soundtrack, turned the fuzz up even more, embodying a platonic ideal of distortion-heavy garage rock that felt both low-key and larger-than-life at the same time.

BECK: THE HIP-HOP NERD

Beck embodies white-boy rap at its most purely goofy, wearing his awkwardness like a superhero cape and casually dropping insane lines like “Mr. Microphone making all the damage felt/ Like a laser manifesto make a mannequin melt.” Though his earliest slam-dunks like “Loser” and “Where It’s At” prided themselves on their crate-digging underdog charm, Beck’s take on rap continued to evolve along with his sound. The party-starting recklessness of tracks like “Novacane” has gradually morphed into a sophisticated, stream-of-consciousness flow, heard best on paranoid songs like “Cellphone’s Dead” and “1000BPM.” That Beck is still able to integrate his peculiar raps into albums that predominantly operate in folk or rock zones is a testament to how natural an MC he truly is.

BECK: THE FOLK TROUBADOUR

The most traditional of all his incarnations, Folk Beck often signals a turn towards the melancholy from everyone’s favorite loser. Between aching songs like “End Of The Day,” “Ramshackle,” and “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” Beck’s acoustic guitar numbers often capture him at his most solitary and introverted—and deep in the process of developing a surprisingly universal language of song compared to his usual grab-bag mashups. But Beck’s folk side isn’t all doom and gloom; psychedelic pieces like “Jack-Ass” and “Dead Melodies” are as wide-eyed as his most joyous work, and on primitive early cuts like “Asshole” and “He’s A Mighty Good Leader,” his music takes on an almost punk quality, ringing with out-of-key notes and slack-jawed apathy. As with Beck’s other manifestations, one gets the sense that even if Beck had pursued an entire career in folk music, it would have been just as rich and surprising as the Beck we ended up with.

BECK: THE DANCING KING

At the end of the day, Beck is a popsmith through and through, willing to use any means necessary to get a musical idea across and start moving some bodies. As time has gone on and Beck albums have begun to surface less frequently, he’s turned to the singles format to release some of his most upbeat and summery songs, such as the electro-clash sing-along “Timebomb,” or the bass-rattling silliness of “Wow.” But Beck’s knack for snappy rhythms and disco-ready beats is rarely as explicit as it is on his 1999 funk fantasy Midnite Vultures. Veering between banjo-laden soul hootenannies like “Sexx Laws,” slinky techno ravers like “Get Real Paid,” and slow-grinding anthems like “Debra,” it’s the musical equivalent of a dive off the mansion balcony into a pool filled with Kool-Aid, as relentlessly tasteless as it is incredible. And as with all Beck, it’s exactly in those kinds of clashes where the fun really starts.