The desert secrets of Beck’s Mellow Gold

beck-1994-2

Mellow Gold (1994)
Beck
DGC

Athanasius of Alexandria wrote of the Desert Fathers and Mothers that by 356AD, ‘the desert had become a city.’ In 1994 the desert was a hotel resort, a tour destination inhabited by artists and musicians making pilgrimage to see whether their sixties forebears had found anything of substance back then. The image encountered on arrival was bleak- those people, it transpired, willingly disappeared into their brains because their world was one of compulsory dissatisfaction, and that world looked much like ours. It wasn’t about following one’s dreams and expanding one’s consciousness, but effectively checking out of the game altogether. The desert makes sense as the site of pop-cultural pilgrimage, particularly when the resort is a well oiled machine– 1992 was according to some The End of History, or our sociocultural apex and endpoint. Jameson had already warned that the late capitalist logic of Game Over would infiltrate culture to hit pause through an endless circularity of pastiche, and in 1994 this appeared to be unavoidable. Whether in its representations or behind them, for Baudrillard the apocalypse had already happened and no one noticed, hence the feelings of indifference that are mainstream, and the desire for annihilation that is their only release. The desert has forever been sublime for the way that it overwhelms and disappears us.

If this, Gram Parsons’ shrine, dripping in vomit from a sunburned CEO with sweat stains all over his white shirt, telling anyone who’ll listen about how he drops out every second weekend, is the endpoint of human achievement, the conclusion to counterculture’s dreams and promises, then why does the world still look and feel so hollow? And are there alternatives to this hollowness beyond a desire for one’s own annihilation? The desert in the time of Mellow Gold held answers that it still seems unwilling to fully divulge. The video for Smashing Pumpkins’ Today evokes Zabriskie Point as an exclusionary vision of second-hand freedom or boomer narcissism; it ends when Billy Corgan, rejected from the promises of the past, picks up his cowboy hat and walks off into the desert as if to say ‘Okay, onto the next fiction.’ Jesus Christ Pose features a psychedelic colour palette made toxic while a shirtless Chris Cornell, contrary to ‘nihilistic passion,’ finds neither salvation nor transcendence in the desert of suffering. Whatever Oliver Stone thought could be said about the era through re-enactments of Jim Morrison tripping in the sixties, Wayne’s World 2 sends up as geeky boomer nostalgia. The question going on from there is whether stoned disaffection can mean anything beyond itself, or whether such an indulgence is low-key approval of the status quo afforded only to an apathetic bourgeoisie: a ‘mind game for the middle class,’ an assertion of indifference.

Beck as King of Slackers aligns with the latter: ‘That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything.’ Cornell and Corgan weren’t slackers either but they had every right to be depressed: try as they might to express themselves, the desert insisted that it was regurgitative, that it’s all been done before. Under this system they were robbed of their hope and anger. Beck’s desert is too stupid and wise for this: a downer, appalled by pastiche even as it calls on characters from the past. Meat Puppets had by 1994 processed their desert mysticism through retrograde psychedelia, but Beck had already found his codex in the mundane surrealism of Plateau a decade earlier. Vanishing Point‘s landscape of ‘excessive, pitiless distance’ with its ‘infinity of anonymous faces’ was actually, if one knew how to look at it, densely filled with handshakes, ghosts, and welcoming (albeit scratchy) TV and radio signals. History needn’t be a loop: Neil Young had departed the beach (the liminal zone between apocalypse neutrality and annihilatory nothingness) for Zuma where there is no encounter, but all gods, myths, and kingdoms waiting to be invented. Following Zuma and Plateau, Beck’s desert is neither numbing nor annihilating; he fills it with signs of life both observed and imaginary. He calls it mundane but that’s to alert us to life’s detail. His figures are picked from fast food restaurants and the grain patterns in the wood of his kitchen table. Of course there’s nothing here, but there’s so much of it too.

Visually he draws on Kenneth Price’s chewy sensuousness, and formally and philosophically from Noah Purifoy and Lonnie Holley with their assertion that the discarded fragments of the (neutral) world can become magic in the right hands: ‘It’s taking from this earth the dust of all the dead.’ Admittedly there is sonic crossover with his contemporary Mark Linkous, but comparing the two simply exaggerates the divine haunted insularity of Linkous and the external materiality of Beck and his sculptor referents. Linkous feels the dust of the dead encroaching, and Beck pushes it out, repurposing it as weird installations. His approach to waste and recycling is critical here: when Modest Mouse recorded The Fruit That Ate Itself with Calvin Johnson, they were mortified to find what Johnson considered worth recording. Beck on the other hand flourished in this environment with One Foot in the Grave, a record of profound throwaways.

Mellow Gold as a major label release is ten minutes longer than One Foot in the Grave, but it feels shorter. Beck’s recording economy means that every subpar verse is housed in something sonically inspired, and his best streams of consciousness are hamstrung by blasé studio effects. What’s sampled from someone who is not Beck, and what appears to have been found on the side of the road (but was secretly made for the occasion), is obsessively obscure. Critically this creates a sense of dusty unease, as in Purifoy’s and Holley’s works, where even the musician’s more straightforward compositions and their presentation appear to hold impossible mysteries. Pay No Mind (Snoozer) offers respite from the cartoon grotesquerie of Loser, but between that and Fuckin With My Head it’s made of precisely the same dirt and paint. They are always outsider assemblages and dirty readymades, and Beck is always the bemused sculptor living among the junk. When the buses leave he spends most of his time in a shack getting high and watching TV, but he plays the part believably when he needs to.

The soul of Mellow Gold is in its tension between Beck the phony (slacker) muddling his way through the desert, and brilliant junkyard magician. It endures because neither the listener nor the creator can ever fully locate him on either side of this divide. Evidence for the former is that he dreams of becoming a serious Artist but only if it’s by accident. He disguises Dylan-ish spouts of words by calling them raps, and tries his hand at a surrealist’s take on streetwise reportage full with anti-establishment second thoughts, squeezing in ample non-sequiturs that he can put it down to coincidence if he falls short. ‘The city is full of morgues’ and ‘shopping malls coming out of the walls,’ sure, but only if he’s allowed the stuff about manure; paychecks and garbage-pail skies, yes, but only if it’s all eclipsed by a ‘giant dildo crushing the sun.’ Erase either the opening or closing line of a stanza and his best intentions are laid bare. He’s a million miles from any of his heroes but that’s because he has expensive taste: even at his worst we can see and smell the disgusting city we’re walking through like we’ve just come from playing co-op on an arcade beat ’em up. His brain paints things in cartoons, but enough time with him and so do ours.

His skill with scenes surpasses his lyrics, sometimes by design. His Truckdrivin’ Neighbour characters stick around for longer than expected given that he’s trying to get us to skip the track with a flurry of exploitative abject images. The song understands: we want to become a fly on the wall to unpack the mystery, but what we find there might destroy us. The sounds suggest a sunbaked motel shithole worth investigating for good and bad reasons: the recording of a domestic screaming match at the beginning is immediately incongruous, but after that it’s meditatively downcast. A ‘1990s gothic tale of a duo, of tragedy and self-abuse,’ the pitchshifted delivery and falsetto wailing cover all angles so we’re left to wander. The smell of chlorine is thick although the water is filthy; there’s a dead bird that’s been bobbing there for weeks and people just swim around it. A child is staying in the motel with his family. He jumped right in first thing the other morning and got a fright, initially because the water was so cold that it made him feel like he was gonna sink, and then because he found the bird when he made it to the top. Beercan is positioned at a barbecue area nearby and is sheer junkyard joy- any profundity found in the lyrics is undercut with ‘shake your boots and let it all get loose.’ Its images aren’t the ones loaded into it by the singer, but whichever ones the listener wanders off into as it plays.

Which is not to say that this is always the case. Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997 is acutely felt as the songs from when he was a folk singer and not a Slacker Poet. ‘I was born in this hotel, washing dishes in the sink / Magazines and free soda, trying hard not to think’ might embody his character outside of Mellow Gold, while every reference to an eternity locked in this place haunts unbearably. He called that other song the nineties gothic tragedy, but this one does the job better: ‘everything we’ve done is wrong’ is something we don’t want to be true but just might be, the eternal recurrence of a new day precisely the same. He was born here, and from this place he’ll never find release: ‘I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone.’ The spoken section getting from ‘She can talk to squirrels’ to just ‘Crying’ is a transition from magic to dirty realism housed in a dizzying ghost story. Similarly his obligatory mean spirited love song, Nitemare Hippy Girl, is a series of autobiographical snapshots hyper-specific and broadly self-deprecating. ‘She’s got marijuana on the bathroom tile,’ ‘She’s busting out onto the scene with nightmare bogus poetry’ (a better description for his lyrics and abrupt rise to fame have never been written), ‘She’s spazzing out on a cosmic level and she’s meditating with the devil’ (a decade of his hangups), ‘She’s a frolicking depression’, and so on. Deep down he has the words and the reflexive angst but his thing is self-sabotage.

Robert Christgau called him ‘a slacker version of the Pretentious Asshole’ (the singer-songwriter), and while that more or less captures his intentions at this stage, it doesn’t explain the foggy landscape that is Mellow Gold. Even in 1994 singer-songwriters were a dime a dozen, slacker or not, and Mellow Gold is one of a kind. It pretends to reveal so much of itself, and in places the singer even tries, but those gestures simply give a greater weight to a mysterious album he has limited control over. Every song has a world, or a series of worlds in it lived and sketched by him, but it’s the arching desert context of Mellow Gold that makes it matter. There’s magic in the room but he’s worried that if he questions it, he’ll scare it off. The singer is too flawed and unreliable to trust, a stoner baby, a neurotic, but Mellow Gold transcends him: he has a weird sensitivity to time and place that means that these baffling things keep happening around him. As a conduit the shit he’s channelling is both colourful and kind of frightening.

His desert is a junkyard pulled from everything discarded by conservative neutralities and the frustrated rebels grazing the sublime for answers. It’s acute observation and expansive imagination: it starts at the television set or the shower mat and extends as far as the subterranean caves that conspiracy theorists tell him house ancient pyramids and lizard people. He doesn’t deride any of it; it’s all colours for his broken glass kaleidoscope. The point is that there is life inside and outside it all, and as many characters and possibilities as we are willing to find, imagine, and fight for. There are scraps for new creations scattered everywhere. The fact that for him the infinite is in the mundane is a good starting point, but it’s bigger than that too. Mellow Gold resists ever coming into focus, and this is its greatest joy and frustration. Joy because we’re there with Beck in those places where he feels it coming together, and frustration because the ‘slacker version of the Pretentious Asshole’ rubs your face in the fact that it’s frustrating. He’s smart enough to make this his final trick: only someone like him could stay aware of the traps that his contemporaries so frequently fell for, meaning that between the Asshole and the clown we find Mellow Gold as a promise that not even he could ever realise.

***

Mellow Gold is forever unfinished business, an innocent headache. 1999’s Midnite Vultures would exaggerate the junkyard aesthetic to satirise the failures of boomers and ravers alike, a fin de siècle of post-ironic sleaze that finds the artist in a more pessimistic mode than in this record. The desert changed, it left him cold. He would find acclaim pursuing the image of a friendly version of the Pretentious Asshole, delivering on his vision with grace and clarity but with no desire to ever frustrate or unsettle again. As though history ended long ago, and he was always destined to settle as a singer-songwriter.

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