Beck hasn't aged well.
Physically he looks like he could be getting ready for his sophomore year of college, but his music lacks the respect it once seemed destined for. After "Loser" reached song-of-a-generation status, odds were, Beck would be a one-hit wonder, but then came Odelay. Sampling and innovating and mix-matching genres, the 1996 album made Beck a critical darling. He followed that with the folkie Mutations and closed the 20th Century with Midnite Vultures, which was either the sweetest homage to or cruelest mockery of Prince.
His live performances were legendary. Beck channeled his inner James Brown and gave audiences his all, but the 21st Century has not been as kind to Mr. Hansen.
Much of his legacy's decay is his own fault. His first album of the 2000s was Sea Change, a downer and a drab affair (that Rolling Stone inexplicably gave a perfect five stars). His tour for the album was even worse. No longer dancing and rocking, Beck would sit on stage with only his acoustic guitar, boring the audience to death.
While it is funny in hindsight in an Andy Kaufman way, I still haven't forgiven him for eating onstage during one song while another musician came on and played. He was content by his previous successes evident in his "safe" last two albums 2004's, Guero and 2007's The Information. Since then, he has been quiet. He produced solo albums from fellow Lollapalooza 1995 veterans Thurston Moore and Stephen Malkmus, and this year, he has released two new songs, "Defriended" and soon to be downloadable (Monday, July 8) "I Won't Be Long."
Neither song is expected to be part of an album and are available to download or as 12-inch vinyls. Both are pleasant enough. They are competently recorded but sung with the passion of a Daft Punk robot. Like Guero and The Information, they are good enough that if you stumbled upon them on the car radio, you would not change the station, but neither would you actively seek them out. "Defriended" especially sounds like the work of a man who owned his own studio and decided to kill some time recording music. There is no excitement, none of the lyrical playfulness once representative of his work.
Beck's career arc keeps reminding me of Tom Cruise. In the 1990s, Cruise would work with unpredictable directors like Stanley Kubrick and PT Anderson while Beck would experiment with new sounds. Neither was afraid to fall on his face, but they were both graceful enough to land firmly on their feet. But lately, they've both tried to be safe, which has led them to irrelevance.
Cruise sees himself as a supercool action star unaware that he is past 50, and Beck is detached, keeping the microphone at a distance, forgetting his screams and white-boy raps that drew us in. If the Scientology they both practice gets the credit for their wrinkle-free skin, does it deserve the blame for their embrace of mediocrity?