Feb 11 2022

Album Review: Beck – Midnite Vultures (#MWE)

I first heard “Sexx Laws” on the radio in 1999, like everyone else. I was young enough I hadn’t listened to anything from Beck other than what was on the radio at that point, but my local college station loved Beck’s new single. I had picked up “Loser” and “Where It’s At” through osmosis, and so I thought of Mr. Hansen as this chameleonic presence, able to switch up his style at any point and seemingly bend genres to his will. Midnite Vultures seemed like a more cartoonish, funky, danceable phase Beck was going through. In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t ever buy the album. The album cover was bright and shiny and weird, but there were always other things I preferred to spend my $15 on.

In 1999, it was novel to mix up genres and styles the way Beck did, though he usually did so from album to album. Nowadays, the whole idea of genre is more an industry thing, a passe concept that artists all but shun. Categorization is more loose in 2022, and it hasn’t caused many issues.

And so Midnite Vultures, its then-uncanny, zany approach, and, well, the music, all seems a bit carbon-dated. From the opener “Sexx Laws” to “Nicotine & Gravy” to next single “Mixed Bizness” we hear horns, banjo, liquid bass, funk guitar, disco beats, and Beck howling about making all the lesbians scream. It’s a lot, and it really just sounds like the artist was throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall. The next song in the order, “Get Real Paid” is pure Kraftwerk pastiche, with more form than substance. Throughout the album, Beck tries his hand at humor, to varying results; his lyrical jokes and tongue-in-cheek deliveries don’t land nearly as cleverly as on previous endeavors.

Listening to Midnite Vultures in one sitting is a dizzying experience, at points exciting and at others maddening. For every moment that is fun, or at least interesting, there is one that is too esoteric or awkward that brings the quality of the album down. Certainly, Beck is not averse to creating a challenging listen, but “Hollywood Freaks” isn’t an effort from his history of non sequitur rapping that is worthy of repeat rotations. “Que Onda Guero” it is not; in fact, it reminded me more of something Flight of the Conchords would have conjured up.

Still, there are highlights. “Milk & Honey” opens with big guitars and features a fully-developed chorus embellished with just the right amount of sonic whirrs and whooshes to make it sound a bit futuristic. And “Debra” is one of the few instances where Beck’s histrionic vocal delivery successfully captures his attempt at conveying his sense of humor. But the album suffers from sameness of approach and drags a bit near the middle with tracks like “Peaches & Cream,” which retreads sounds we’ve heard before.

Beck would go on to create the folk-rock masterpiece Sea Change and a series of albums that all sounded pretty similar to each other and diminished in quality over time. He would win Album of the Year at the Grammys for his lesser Sea Change sequel Morning Phase. In the context of his entire career, Midnite Vultures marks the end of the beginning. Beck’s output afterward was less weird, and sometimes a bit more boring, but certainly more focused.

Score: 6/10