We'll get to talk to the Lovesick Blues Boy tomorrow, won't we? But for now it's late afternoon, hotel room in LA. I've just downloaded four tracks from Beck's new album. A song is playing. "The Golden Age". Desert wind cool your achin' head/The weight of the world drift away instead he sings in voice of infinite weariness and disillusionment. The song is haunting, heart-rending, saturated with world-weary melancholy.
Gone is the Beck flash, the ingenious graftings and cunning pastiches, the surreal word juxtapositions, the synth drums and Pro-Tools cleverness. In its place is a wounded soul in a desperate state, telling of loss, emotional damage, the desire for escape from everything - all set against sparse, dry drums, faux pedal steel, and a clean acoustic guitar. It ends with him repeating "I don't even try" in a tone of hopeless resignation. The lament of one who's gone through some unknown turmoil and lost love. I'm suddenly feeling unaccountably broken-hearted myself.
This is Beck? Oh okay, maybe it's that thing he does at his concerts. You know, opening with an old Delta blues and then launching into full-spectrum multiphrenic Beckorama funk-punk-psychobilly-folk-grunge-techno lunge.
I'm talking to myself. I'm confused. I've come 4,000 miles to meet the Hybrid Kid himself and he's gone 70s California country on me.
Cue track two: "Paper Tiger". Torn apart by idle hands/ Through the helter skelter morning/Fix your head while you still can ... /And all the laws of creation/Tell a dead man how to die.../Like a stray dog gone defective. Jesus, he's turned into Gram Parsons! It's spooky. And when you let all that mysterioso amigo stuff about the Gram cult drift through your mind - the roadie burning Gram's body in Joshua Tree National Monument - the thought (briefly) occurs to you that Beck has been possessed by the wayward spirit of the grievous angel himself. Man, I've gotta stop thinking these thoughts. Just do the interview, take some notes, and stay clear of the southern California psycho-temporal parasites.
All the sorrows of the world are here. The overwhelming swell of the orchestra washes over you like a forlorn wave leaving anguish and regret in its wake. It summons up the weltschmerz of early 70s country rock. Real Neil of Harvest is in there somewhere along with the aforementioned Gram, the Burrito Brothers, even a bit of Sneaky Pete's crazy pedal steel. The ghost of old Hank Williams hovers, and Tom Waits lingers like a sinker tugging on the line. And there's even a pinch of Radiohead - not so surprising considering Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's producer, also produced this album. It's just a bit eerie that it's the impish, ironic bricoleur Beck singing these songs of desolation and abandonment - devoid of his customary irony and chameleon karma.
What to make of it all? Look, I know Beck does country, goofs on country generally in the manner of Jagger & Co, and grew up in Kansas with his grandpaw and listened to the country station playin' soft. I'm aware that beneath all the layers of pastiche and put-on there's a punk, and in the theology of psychobilly, punks are the true progeny of Old Hank Williams - I'm taking all this into account - but still!
Driving down La Cienega, I recount the rascally rise of Beck to myself. Once upon a time – late 80s, early 90s – the great god Pan was sick. The kingdom of Pop was under a pall. The music that had set us free through the sinister magic of the music biz had lost its mojo. Fragmented, bloated, merchandised - gone astray. Slick hair-metal crunched through the land, boy-band bubblegum flooded the market, hip hop had become formalised, techno ground on like a demented toy, grunge was on the wane, and alternate/indie had taken a supercilious stance towards the very joys of rock - like shakin' yer booty, for instance. You know you're in trouble when the commercials on MTV are hipper than the videos. Who was to lead us out of the wasteland? And then along came Beck.
For the role of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, Beck was perfect. His pop creds were impeccable: his grandfather, Al Hansen, had turned cigarette butts into goddesses through sympathetic magic, his mom hung out with Warhol at the Factory and in the thick of the LA punk scene, his dad, David Campbell, was a bluegrass street musician. He'd been part of the anti-folk movement in the East Village and the coffee-house scene around Silverlake.
Out there on his asteroid, the Little Prince had for a long time been picking up signals from a disintegrating planet (Los Angeles) and he knew just what to do with this stuff. He'd grown up in the junk culture. His grandfather was the Scavenger King, he lived in a scrap yard. A pure soul who saw all the disjointed fragments as pieces of a giant sonic jigsaw puzzle. His vision was genX bothandism, a rootless eclecticism, which celebrated the trashy, disposable culture and induced a multiphrenic approach to music. In the new McLuhanesque/Warholian cosmology, all things are equal on the turntable. Like Sly, he had a DJ's random sensibility, and like Picasso, he approached art as a sum of destructions.
A child of the computer age, his centrifuge was Pro-Tools, an advanced music software that permitted him to sanction synth, cut-and-paste disco, puree pop and bossa nova, and mix in Led Zep with P-funk. He picked apart Kraftwerk and "The Girl from Ipanema", downloaded German late 60s minimalism, and blended Dr John and psychedelia. And he wrote great surreal lyrics, what he called his "pure thought processes and disconnected poetry".
When his home-recorded slacker anthem, the folky hiphopped "Loser" made it into the Top Ten in 1994, Beck entered the mainstream. When he followed up this early serendipitous triumph with his masterpiece Odelay two years later, Beck was hailed as the long-awaited messiah of pop. Odelay was as cynical and caustic as an LA runaway but there was a wry, playful, scanning intelligence at work that made it seem like homeopathic music, healing a wounded culture with small doses of its own poison.
In the dressing room there are racks of clothes put together by both the stylist and Beck. "I bring most of my own stuff to these things," Beck explains. "You can kinda tell where it's at when you see the magazine." The selection is in a bewildering jumble of styles that only an exegete of the zeitgeist could decipher: haute couture hangs next to outlandish costumes next to panhandler-kid outfits. The black and silver blazer by Hedi Slimaine for Dior Homme rubs up against a pair of Beck-customised pink jeans with studs and patches sewn on with big wool stitching. Lined up on the floor are pointy maroon Japanese villain shoes with fake snakeskin insets, cheek by jowl with grubby Keds sneakers, next to vintage spiky Bruno Valente gigolo pumps. Gender and timelines mixed up - just like his albums. There's a reserved woman's grey jacket by the Belgian designer Veronique Branquinho, a retro high school marching-band jacket that a hippy would have coveted next to a Comme des Gargons blazer.
"Hmm," I say, "You seem to be really into Japanese fashion."
"I get a lot of things in Japan," says Beck. "It's kinda my size. Japanese stuff is cut narrower."
After trying on a few outfits he's ready. Silver feather and some turquoise beads on a necklace over the red t-shirt with an elegant pattern of moth holes, dirty Keds, green flares and that Dior Homme silver and black blazer. And Beck's habitual bracelet, a piece of felt with coloured string tied around it. It's a honed thrift-shop/couture style that manages to look casual and studied at the same time. Jon Spencer's Plastic Fang is blaring from the speakers - monster-truck blues incoming at molecule-rattling decibels to which Beck starts doing his gawky, jerky, attempted soul dance. He throws out a martial arts blow, jumps in the air, raises his arms up in a soul affirmation pose. "I think I should make it more spastic," he says, "so it doesn't come off so whack. It's easy to fall into a certain stance of swagger that's typical for a musician. So I'm always attempting to dismantle that. I grew up on punk rock bands like Black Flag and that was anti-smooth. My instinct is to fight against anything becoming too professional. MTV moves. When I was nine or ten my favourite band was Devo (imitating the band's robotic moves) and to me that rocks more than some bare-chested hairmetal stud thrusting his hips."
"Actually," says Beck, "it's something I've been doing for a long time. It's funny, when I play this album for people I've known a long time they say it reminds them of what I was doing ten years ago when I was making 4-track tapes. Honestly, we're only given a few chances every couple of years to come up with new songs, and usually I put together songs that work together as a piece. This album probably represents a certain aspect of the songwriting more than the Odelay side."
But, I protest, aside from the songwriting craft, it's also much more intense and sincere - more personal, utterly devoid of his characteristic irony.
"Well, I definitely get pegged as being ironic - and that has been an element of what I did - but for me it came more from a sense of having fun than making fun. Just not taking it all that seriously. It was never meant to degrade. At the same time I was serious about what I did. The songs on this album are more related to each other, but these kind of songs pop up on various albums. Like Mutations, for instance."
But this album also seems to have an overwhelming sense of melancholy and world weariness about it that reminds me of Gram Parson's at his most disheartened or the third side of Exile on Main Street. Beck laughs.
"You always have to understand where I came from. When I was 14, I was in the LA underground punk scene playing an acoustic guitar. In that scene there wasn't any place for me to come in and play a very personal acoustic ballad. That was a side of me I had to suppress. It took me a lot of years to bring those songs out and have the confidence to do them." With country-folk material like this, how do you avoid being revivalist? How do you mutate folk music into becoming contemporary?
"It's something that takes a while to evolve. The folk music that was coming out of the Village in the early 60s was very much a pastiche, a replication of authenticity, but then through Dylan and the Byrds, it evolved into something that was more relevant to the times.
"I can easily just tap into another style, although on this album I was afraid it might sound like early 70s California folk-rock, like the Eagles. The way I tried to avoid that was by recording a lot of the album live; the vocals and everything. So there's mistakes, rough edges and a certain grit and gravel to it that rescues it from being easy-listening country. And it was almost always the second take, I swear to God - out of, say, ten takes - that we kept. When it was at the point when everybody was playing just well enough not to be bad but before everyone had figured out how to play it well. Everybody who worked on the record, and Nigel Godrich who produced it, we all grew up on punk rock, so we bring that attitude and aesthetic to it."
But if one were to go by the lyrics alone, I say, you seem to have a grim view of life at this point in time.
"Well, it's a very specific emotional place. One of those situations where you're back to zero. The reset button has been pressed - it happens from time to time in life. But I'm basically a very optimistic person. I've always had a theory that it's much easier to write something dark and nonpositive than be happy. Al Green is a genius. And the Beatles, naturally, because it's very difficult to write something that's affirming, but that isn't saccharine and bland and doesn't insult your intelligence. I don't think the record comes from a place of hopelessness. It just comes from a place of recognising the truth in a situation, you know?"
You once said "I think my whole generation's mission is to kill the cliche", and yet here you seem to have made peace with songwriting cliches like "there's a bluebird on my window sill", a typical pop-song chestnut which Audrey Williams sang with the Drifting Cowboys.
"`Bluebird on my window sill' sounded to me like one of the old folk songs I liked when I was 16, Carter Family songs, Appalachian ballads. I was trying to recreate some of that feeling. I spent the last couple of years focusing on the songwriting. Pure songwriting. I'm a devotee of songwriters. And a believer in the idea of the song. I truly want to craft some disciplined simple songs that were direct and emotional to me. Hank Williams was a master. Direct simplicity.
They're sung with such sincerity, I say. I've never heard your voice so out front on the track.
"Well, in the past I got into a real mode of doing anti-vocals where I wasn't even trying to sing. I wanted it to be kind of ugly. Contrary to the notion that to express emotion you have to turn up the volume of your emotions. I used the worst microphones. 'Loser' was done on a $20 microphone from Radio Shack, a little thing that they use to record board meetings. I was in an anti-singing frame of mind, just in the sense of not wanting to do something contrived. So much of the music I heard when I was coming up had so much bathos to it. Over-baked."
I tell Beck that I read somewhere that Allen Ginsberg said his lyrics were the best he'd heard since Dylan's, that he's a fan of awkward language.
"I've always appreciated that tumbling through language, the awkwardness of a foreigner speaking a language. I'm inspired by that and try to write like that. It's a fresh perspective on language and words whereby you come up with accidental meanings, unintentional meanings that sometimes can be more beautiful than anything you could think up."
When you opened for Dylan in the 90s I was told he got onstage and said, "That was the new genius."
"I was completely taken off guard when I met Dylan. He was nothing like I would've expected - just very personable and friendly. I guess I expected a poetic shroud encircling him, the vapours of mystique coming off his person but it was nothing like that. He asked me if I knew any good guitar players!"
I mention that Beck himself is pretty much associated with music composed on the computer.
"But I use it as an instrument. I'm not using it to make things perfect. I use it to launch into something else, to create effects that you couldn't create in an analogue system. I think it's important to make music like that every so often, but it's not the only way music should be made.
How long did it take to make?
"Altogether, it took about three-and-a-half weeks. But we did Mutations in 14 days. So we had a lot to live up to. When we got up to three-and-a-half weeks, we started to feel indulgent!"
"Little One" is the most experimental track on the album, I venture.
"Haven't got a good song title for that one yet. One of my favourite recordings, but unfortunately that was the one we worked on the most. And when you work on a song for a number of days, the tape starts to wear."
I mention that "Sunday Sun", with its Beatleish chorus, is the rare upbeat, uptempo song on the album.
"Light at the end of the tunnel," Beck says. "Anything that's descending is Beatles. They have the rights to descending chord structures."
But the rest of the album is so dark and anguished, does it reflect a personal change in your life? Are you going through personal turmoil or is it art for art's sake?
"It all comes out of experience. It deals with the commonalities that haunt all homo sapiens. (Pause) Excuse me, I'm a bit sun baked. I was ready to take a nap on the hood of the car out there. But yeah, it's definitely a shift in style as well. We don't get to develop as intensely as songwriters did 25 or 35 years ago, when an album came out from a group every six months. With my album, you're missing a few steps in the progression because it's been three years since I last put a record out. So technically there's about four or five albums of progression that aren't there. I've probably written that much material. The way it's structured, you have to wait a certain amount of years - all those corporate dos and don'ts. Not that I ever bothered to adhere to them. But they exist."
Don't you have a deal with Geffen Records under which you can do side records on indie labels? "
Yeah, I think I'm going to try to increase the output a bit; it allows you to experiment. Allows you some room for failures. The album will be out in September which is good - closer to the moment it was made. Most of the records I've made were recorded a year and a half before they saw the light of day, and by the time you're out touring them, they've been recorded years before. It would be like Hendrix going out to do 'Foxy Lady' for the first time in 71 and stopping in the middle of the performance and saying, 'Wait a minute man, what's happenin? This shit was meant to come out in 67.'
"Any time that I transfer what I'm doing now to the timeline of the 60s, it always looks ridiculous. That was a time when things were moving so quickly and the creativity was so high, the whole culture seemed to be on the same wavelength. It was all in sync, and now it's down to boy bands."
"They're pretty diverse," says Beck. "One is more punk rock, and then there's another one which is essentially a mixture of things I've been working on for a while that sounds a little like the material on Odelay. I hesitated about doing it because I didn't want to repeat that kind of thing, but to a certain extent that's my style. And I think musicians can get into a trap when they try and avoid repeating a genre they've already done and end up losing a vital part of themselves."
Isaiah Berlin divided artists into foxes and hedgehogs. "The fox," he said, "knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." With Beck, it isn't quite that simple. He is something of a serial enigma: fox mutating into hedgehog and back again.
There always were two Becks - the one who loves all the profound old music of Delta blues and the Appalachian mountains and who shows up on One Foot in the Grave (his walking blues album) and on Mutations. And then there's the mischievous mix-up kid of Mellow Gold, Stereopathetic Soul Manure, Odelay and Midnite Vultures - and Beck himself is in no hurry to resolve them. He seems to believe in the oxymoron as a value in itself, a necessity actually, for depicting a schitzy culture. "The only way you can approximate the human animal is through opposites," he says. Beck oscillates between his polar selves. It's the engine that propels him.