The standouts, as always, are those in which Beck taps his prodigious gift for melody: "Peaches and Cream," the tangy "Mixed Bizness," and especially "Get Real Paid." On the face of it, "Get Real Paid" is simply a tour through dance-music styles: Kraftwerk electronica gives way to brittle dance-floor shouts, an atonal sing-song, and then full-out party harmony. But Beck turns the song into high-concept comedy -- a sonic evolution from dispassionate machine to full-blown groovy human -- intensified by the speed of the execution; the whole trajectory takes about 20 seconds. Elsewhere, Midnite Vultures opts for more traditional songcraft ("Beautiful Way," with a vocal contribution from Beth Orton).
Like other great pop artists before him, whether critically acclaimed (the Beatles, the Small Faces, the Buzzcocks) or critically eviscerated (the Bee Gees, Culture Club, Duran Duran), Beck refuses to write a song without at least three or four hooks. When one misses, the next one hits. Sometimes they all hit.
If there's a problem with Midnite Vultures, it's that the party atmosphere, relentlessly apolitical, works against those few moments when Beck's lyrics seem to be substantive. (At least two songs, "Nicotine and Gravy" and "Broken Train," attempt a "1999"-style irony by depicting revelry against a backdrop of social breakdown. Neither is successful.) There's more than a whiff of Al Jolson in the way that Beck slips into black street slang on mack-o-rific tracks like "Hollywood Freaks." And "Debra," which has long been a showstopping ballad in Beck's live shows, doesn't have the heft it should on record. He sounds like a kid playing with adult emotions -- not as bad as LeAnn Rimes, but not as good as the Manhattans. In the end, though, these are minor quibbles. Few pop singers this year have made a record as adventurous as Midnite Vultures. -- Ben Greenman