Album Review: Beck - Midnite Vultures

“Hipster” is defined as a person who follows the latest trends that are usually out of the cultural mainstream. More recently, the term has become more and more ironic- as if those who identify as a Hipster are doing it in a hipster way. Granted, it’s a difficult logic to follow. The very act of being a hipster is even more hipster than ever. In 1999, the term had been around for a while, the earliest I know of it in music is on Orange Juice’s 1982 song Untitled Melody. Funnily enough, that title is suitably hipster. But in 1999, one artist set out to completely outdo anything that had come before in regards to alternative and, by extension, hipster. What happens when irony becomes the basis for an album, when subversion becomes a strategy and when everything to do with hipster culture was absorbed, amplified by ten and then spat out again? What happens is an album that is lying to you in every sincere moment and is holding back the tears every time it talks dirty. An album so overtly Hipster that referring to it as Hipster would be decidedly not Hipster. An album of contradictions. What happened was Beck’s Midnite Vultures.

By this rather wordy logic, one would assume that Midnite Vultures would be a difficult listen, or at the very least, an unenjoyable one. Somehow, by some sort of miracle, Midnite Vultures is anything but. What it is though, is Beck’s best album. If you’re still not quite following me then let me explain. Midnite Vultures is either one massive joke, conjured up by Beck to toot his sense of humour or… it’s a genuinely heartfelt exercise in genre. In my opinion, it’s the former and Beck makes it work.

By melding funk, pop, rockabilly and, to a smaller extent, dance, Beck created a sprawling 13-track album that plays to all his strength as an ever-mutating artist. No two tracks on Midnite Vultures are the same; much like no two Beck albums are the same. Sexx Laws is probably the perfect opening track to an album that’s purposefully polarising. Horn blasts accompany an almost reggae-like beat and syncopated ‘du-whops.’ The lyrics are ultimately nonsensical but its lines like “I’m a full-grown man but I’m not afraid to cry” that hint at the heart beneath the record’s sheen of irony, despite being eventually engulfed by Beck’s screeching falsetto and glitchy electronics coupled with a banjo break. This is what Midnite Vultures sets out to do. Hit the emotional punches but completely undermine them in the next line or musical break out.

Midnite Vultures is an album that actively wants to subvert your expectations, constantly contradicting itself.
– Kieran Baddeley

Beck was also never so oxymoronically self-conscious and self-confident at the same time. On Mixed Bizness, Beck ruminates that “She can look right through me.” It suggests a transparency in Beck’s personality, something behind the façade that only someone as intimate as a lover can see. Lines like this only hint at what lies beneath the veneer of Midnite Vultures, behind its patchwork of samples and unnecessary interludes. They act as a respite from Beck’s hubris: he’s the one who can make “all the lesbians scream,” in case you didn’t know. Of course, these declarations aren’t meant with any seriousness, they belong with the same nonsensical riffs like “touch my ass if you’re qualified” or “hot milk, um, tweak my nipple.” Granted they’re hilarious and blatantly sexual but where does the real Beck start? That’s for you to interpret. Is he genuinely this self-aggrandising or is it just a front for something deeper? Perhaps I’m lending too much depth to an album that genuinely is a massive joke. I can feel Beck laughing at me as I write this.

Whichever interpretation you choose, there’s one thing that can’t be denied – Beck’s infatuation with all things sexual. Of course, with sex comes infatuation and with infatuation comes sex. Every track, whatever its main plot, has a preoccupation with lust. The licentious “oohs” and “aahs” of Nicotine and Gravy underpin a supple and indelible groove of shuffled drums and distant, half-cut horns. In fact, this track is where Beck comes across as most sincere. Yes, the moans are distracting, but really, Beck focuses on features of being in love – something that is ultimately un-sexy. “Her left eye is lazy” and it sends him “crazy.” “Things don’t even faze me,” he notes- he doesn’t care. It’s just love. But once again, it might not be. I could be reading way too much into the lyrics. The fact is, that behind the rampant sexual fascination at surface level (“she can really do me”/ “mixed business with leather”/ “you make the garbage man scream”) can lie an album of subtle hints towards something deeper for anyone bothered to have a look. But when the music is this good, as it is at the end of Nicotine and Gravy with its extended, eastern-infused dance break, you sometimes just can’t be bothered to search for anything deeper.

The album closes with Debra. After 12 tracks that borrow from everything on the musical map, at once making fun of them and esteeming them, the album closes with a final and full submersion in genre. Debra is a masterpiece. Debra is my favourite Prince song. I’ll leave you to listen and figure that one out for yourself.

In truth, Midnite Vultures is by no means hipster. To label it so would be to diminish it. It’s so much more than an attempt to create something hipster, something so alternative that it borders on hilarious. But at the same time, that’s exactly what it is. Midnite Vultures is an album that actively wants to subvert your expectations, constantly contradicting itself. It bends to Beck’s will – of course that’s the correct way to spell “Midnite” and “Bizness.” This review probably doesn’t make much sense but nor does the album. Like Beck, I make no apologies for it. Whether it is all a massive joke has divided Beck fans and critics since its release. If it is, I’m glad. I’m more than happy to give Beck the satisfaction of knowing we’ve fallen for a joke that only he gets.