A Look at the Multiple Personalities of Beck, Alt-Rock’s Constant Chameleon

Anyone who’s spent much time with the Beck discography knows that while he’s one of a kind, there’s more than just one Beck.

Anyone who's spent much time with the Beck discography knows that while he's one of a kind, there's more than just one Beck.

There's the pseudo-rapping slacker of "Loser" and "Where It's At." The spandex soulman of Midnite Vultures. The heartbroken troubadour who beat out Beyoncé for a Grammy. Go back to his earliest days, and he was angling to be the Blind Lemon Jefferson of Generation X. His output in the past two decades is a mess of contradictions, from smirking to sincere, madcap to totally humorless. Each iteration—with the possible exception of 2007's Modern Guilt, which was basically just a Spoon album—has its ardent fans and avid detractors, which is exactly what makes Beck such a generational talent.

Here, we present a breakdown of Beck's most dominant personalities, all of which should turn up, in one form or another, at Waterfront Park next weekend.

1. Junkyard Bluesman

Character traits: Mushmouth vocals. Guitars that seem to be detuning as he plays them. Gobbledygook lyrics that still make you tear up somehow.

Albums he appears on: Mellow Gold, One Foot in the Grave, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Mutations.

Most representative songs: "Loser," "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)," "Asshole," "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack."

If you're looking to identify the "real" Beck, don't start at Odelay or even Mellow Gold, his nominal debut. Most of what he's done since "Loser" made him a household mononym is just a higher-budget variation on the stuff he began working out in his street busker days, and which he first committed to tape in a meaningful way on One Foot in the Grave. (Yes, hardcore Beckies, we know there were home-recorded cassettes circulating earlier, but we're talking about the official canon here.) While the preceding Stereopathetic Soulmanure is noisier, Mellow Gold adds the hip-hop beats that would make him an Alternative Nation superstar, and Mutations bumps up the psychedelic gloss, One Foot is basically Beck unplugged, literally and metaphorically. Recorded in Calvin Johnson's basement in Olympia, Wash., released on K Records and featuring threadbare accompaniment from several Pacific Northwest musicians, including drummer Scott Plouf of Portland's Spinanes, it's the album on which he lays his blues aspirations bare, playing things as straight as he ever would that decade, while still remaining weird and ragged. He'd go on to dress up in suits, Western wear and tasseled disco costumes, and wrap his music in several layers of irony and pop-culture detritus. But if you track his ultimate career progression—from anti-folk to actual folk—it's clear that when you tear everything away, he's still just a dude with a guitar trying to win either your heart, your attention or your dollar. Or, save any of that, just make you go, "What the fuck?" MATTHEW SINGER.

2. Thrift-Store Disco Cowboy

Character traits: Charismatic drifter with a soft spot for shitty casinos, worn out hustlers and '70s AM gold.

Albums he appears on: Odelay, Guero, The Information.

Most representative songs: "Hotwax," "The New Pollution," "Rental Car," "Elevator Music."

When your anti-folk slacker salad days consist of playing a leaf blower as an instrument and rapping about saving all your food stamps and burnin' down the trailer park, you're more or less free to follow whatever muse you'd like on your next creative endeavor. On his Grammy-winning 1996 album, Odelay, Beck's muse was a haggard cowboy who spent the last days of disco holed up in a fleabag motel in Reno doing trucker speed, alternating between "Rapper's Delight" and Glen Campbell on the stereo. Overflowing with obscure hip-hop samples and deep-fried funk grooves, what's more shocking than the fact that Beck was only 25 when the album dropped is its immediate acclaim, which makes a little more sense when you consider that Celine Dion, "Macarena" and the rotting remains of grunge dominated mainstream radio at the time. In an era when irony was the currency of Gen-X culture, clips of Beck rocking a Stetson and schlepping a ghetto blaster through Manhattan in the video for "Devil's Haircut" secured his status as the new hipster Jesus. Since then, his ability to marry idiosyncratic lyrics, speaker-rattling funk and obtuse earworms in a way that elicits imagery of booty-shaking block parties ("Where It's At"), white-knuckled semi-truck chase scenes ("Novacane") and glammed-up consumerism ("New Pollution") remains unmatched even by him. Still, attempts to relive the magic on Guero and The Information register as compelling reminders that even if he never catches lightning in a bottle again like he did on Odelay, Beck is still a once-in-a-lifetime talent who's earned the right to do whatever the fuck he wants. PETE COTTELL.

3. R&B Sex God

Character traits: Sex-obsessed insomniac. Chameleon with wild mood swings. Probably drives a Hyundai.

Albums he appears on: Midnite Vultures.

Most representative songs: "Sexx Laws," "Hollywood Freaks," "Debra."

How do you follow up a groundbreaking album that mixed everything and the kitchen sink together and somehow became an MTV hit? In Beck's case, he made his version of a Prince album. Midnite Vultures is hardly scaled back, though. Odelay's pop-culture pastiche grab bag is instead traded in for silly innuendo and synthesizers that smell like Camembert. "Get Real Paid" is pure robot funk, a Kraftwerk-lite workout with liquid slap bass, a "touch my ass if you're qualified" refrain and plenty of late-'90s bleeps and bloops. Beck dabbled with a hip-hop cadence on Odelay, but he goes full white rapper on "Hollywood Freaks," a ridiculous mix of non sequitur come-ons and obscure references (Norman Schwartzkopf?) that sounded silly in 1998 and but also still kinda bangs. There's nothing subtle about Midnite Vultures, especially the closing sex jam "Debra," which, sorry millennials, actually isn't a Flight of the Conchords skit. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.

4. Sad-Sack Folk Singer

Character traits: Sedated baritone. Open-chord finger-picked lamentations. Jilted navel-gazing.

Albums he appears on: Sea Change, Morning Phase.

Most representative songs: "Lost Cause," "Golden Age," "Guess I'm Doing Fine."

Being made a cuckold just after finishing an exhaustive tour schedule for the fiery, confident Midnite Vultures, Beck slipped into a dark, introspective malaise that would become his blue period. He enlisted Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame to channel the paranoid ennui of dark, acoustic folk songs like "Already Dead" and "Lonesome Tears," as well as Jon Brion and Joey Waronker, two of Elliott Smith's frequent collaborators. He even recruited Smith's preferred photographer, Autumn de Wilde, to shoot his portrait for the cover. Digital artist Jeremy Blake gave the cover star his signature opaque rainbow treatment, the same tones made famous in P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love. Overall, the weeping-cowboy persona yielded some of Beck's most subtle tunes and became a persona he'd revisit for Morning Phase. CRIS LANKENAU.

Beck plays Aug. 27 at 8:20 pm.

MusicfestNW presents Project Pabst is Aug. 26-27 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Get tickets here.

Welcome to MusicfestNW presents Project Pabst || An Annotated Guide to Iggy Pop's Body || Beck's Multiple Personalities || A Super-High Die Antwoord Videography || Nas' Greatest Beefs || Father John Misty: Genius or Troll? || How I Learned to Love Spoon || Five Facts About Lizzo || Filthy Friends Q&A || Frankie Cosmos || White Reaper || RVIVR || Noname || FIDLAR || Whitney || Pup || San Fermin ||  The Last Artful, Dodgr || Lithics || Beer, Food, Games & More

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