Sunday, August 29, 2010

August 29: Beck, "Bottle Of Blues"

Artist: Beck
Song: "Bottle Of Blues"
Album: Mutations
Year: 1998

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Though they are very few and far between, once or twice in a generation, an artist emerges that has just profound ability, that it is almost impossible to predict what sonic approach they will deploy from record to record.  Over time, those in this elite group of musicians prove time and time again that they are capable of musical mastery across every genre, and though they are sometimes overlooked, they stand as the most important performers of their era.  Though he made his name off of what was almost a novelty song, those who looked closer could easily see the genius in his first single, and the albums that followed reinforced the fact that Beck had a musical gift that was far beyond that of any of his peers.  Seeming to be able to blend elements of any genre into his unique, lo-fi rock sound, the string of albums that followed his hit single, "Loser," remain some of the most inventive and exciting records of the decade.  While many see his 1996 record, Odelay, as his crowing achievement, the fact of the matter is, it is the trio of records that followed where one can find much of his most intriguing and inventive music.  Standing in stark contrast to his Grammy winning effort, Beck's 1998 release, Mutations, stands as one of the most brilliant, yet overlooked records of the decade, and it is on this album that he proves his true musical genius on many levels.  Spinning his quirky sound into beautiful, mostly acoustic textures, one can find everything that makes Beck such an amazing performer in his 1998 song, "Bottle Of Blues."

While many of his previous efforts had been full and complex musical pieces, "Bottle Of Blues" is in many ways the opposite, fueled by little more than an acoustic guitar and a simple drum beat.  This reflects much of Mutations as it is stands as Beck's finest balance between the musical experimentation found on many of his records, but gives a peek into the more introspective, more mellow sounds that he would take to their fullest on his equally brilliant Sea Change album a few years later.  One can make the case that much of the reason for his divergence on his sound was due to the presence of producer Nigel Godrich.  Perhaps best known for his work on Radiohead's OK Computer, clearly Godrich understands how to give the ideal sound to softer arrangements, and he helps to bring out all the emotion and subtle beauty of Beck's music at every turn.  Throughout "Bottle Of Blues," it is the light touches and singular musical additions that push the song beyond a "normal" acoustic song.  Whether it is the perfectly placed moments of triangle or the trademark "odd" sound effects that jump in and out of the song, Beck blends his trademark quirk with the delicate acoustic background to produce an overall sound that is truly like nothing else ever recorded.  The fact that the song (and the album) has such a laid-back feel, yet never drags for a moment is a testament to Beck's fantastic sense of musical structure, and many artists could learn a great deal from his brilliant work on "Bottle Of Blues."

Throughout nearly every song he has ever written, Beck has shown that his singing voice and writing ability are equal to his skills as a musical arranger, and it is this fact that places him far above nearly every one of his peers.  Without question, Beck has one of the most naturally beautiful voices of his generation, and whether he is using it at its "normal" speaking tone or pushing it to the far ends of the vocal spectrum, he clearly knows no limits with his voice, and this enables him to have songs that bring an amazing depth and variation in sound.  On "Bottle Of Blues," there is an amazing authenticity and simplicity in his singing, as one can easily picture the song being sung around a campfire, and his honest and straightforward sound is one of the keys to the song being so fantastic.  Along with being a superb composer and singer, though they are often lost in the somewhat silly nature of his music, there is no question that Beck is also one of the most talented lyricists in history.  With equal grasp on the profound and the simple, Beck has been able to weave some of the most profound phrases in music history, and on "Bottle Of Blues," he paints one of his finest songs of heartbreak and longing.  Showing both sides of his talents, Beck lays things out in a way all can understand with the lines, "...ain't it hard to want somebody who doesn't want you..."  However, he builds the repeated bridge section over a brilliantly put together phrase of, "...holding hands with an impotent dream, in a brothel of fake energy..."  Throughout "Bottle Of Blues," Beck's voice glides magnificently across every word, and it is in these words that he proves to have an uncanny grasp on both the simple and profound feelings that live inside us all.

Strangely enough, both Beck and his record label have implied over the years that Mutations was NOT supposed to be the follow-up record to his Grammy winning Odelay.  While this makes very little sense, as it surely could have been stopped before production, as well as the fact that it is an amazing record, Mutations went on to find respectable commercial success, proving that Beck's fanbase was willing to follow him in whatever musical direction he chose.  Placing his eclectic, almost dance-style songs on the back-burner, Beck used Mutations to show many of his musical roots, and the more mellow, almost country-style songs found throughout the record showed his abilities in an entirely new light.  It is this balance between the traditional sound of country music and Beck's infusion of what is almost a psychedelic sound that makes Mutations such a unique musical experience, and his strangely sober "Bottle Of Blues" is unquestionably one of the high-points of the record.  As he has always done throughout his entire career, Beck uses the song to spin an age-old theme into something that had never before been heard.  Placing his perfectly toned acoustic guitar over a light drum shuffle, he sets a fantastic backdrop over which he deploys some of the finest, yet most subtle sound effects of his entire career.  Capped off by his simple, yet soulful voice and the similarly shaped lyrics, there are few songs in Beck's catalog that can compare to the over all impact of his 1998 song, "Bottle Of Blues."

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