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Holy Hell: Midnite Vultures Turns 20

Holy Hell: Midnite Vultures Turns 20

The parts of Midnite Vultures that hold up best today are the ones that feel more like organic extensions of Beck’s style and less like, well, culture vulture-ing.

Midnite Vultures has always occupied an odd place in Beck’s discography. Widely received as a return to the sonic pranksterism and Dust Brothers production of 1996’s Odelay after 1998’s more muted, reflective Mutations, it was also criticized almost as widely as a fatuous joke—even by the artist himself, who described the album before its release as “a party record with dumb sounds and dumb songs and dumb lyrics.” But the critical response I’ll always remember most was the one shared by an older classmate at the suburban Michigan high school I was attending in late 1999: “It’s, like, funk, but like…Beck.”

“Funk, but Beck” is about as neat a description for Midnite Vultures as one could ask for—though, as the Vegas-style horn section and abrupt banjo and pedal steel breakdown of opening track “Sexx Laws” attest, the scales are always tipped toward the “Beck” side of the equation. Like David Bowie’s Young Americans—an influence Beck tacitly acknowledged by borrowing the fluttering saxophone line from “Win” for his own “Debra”—it’s a white postmodernist’s pastiche of an R&B album, one for which the artist’s whiteness is central to its aesthetic. At its best, like the mutated Brothers Johnson groove of “Nicotine & Gravy,” Beck’s arch awkwardness works in his favor; at its worst…well, we’ve all heard “Hollywood Freaks.”

More than any other song on the album, “Freaks” is the one that has earned Vultures its reputation for hollowness. A sleek G-Funk homage marred by Beck’s decision to perform in a voice that resembles a severely concussed Ice-T, it’s the moment when the album threatens to cross the line from self-conscious appropriation to straight-ahead minstrelsy. It isn’t unique in Beck’s career—listen to a concert recording from the Odelay tour and you’ll hear plenty of equally cringe-making hip-hop goofs—but “Freaks”’ prominence on the album makes it feel like a notable wrong turn: a far cry, to be sure, from the self-effacing slacker-rap of his 1994 breakthrough “Loser.”

In contrast, the parts of Midnite Vultures that hold up best today are the ones that feel more like organic extensions of Beck’s style and less like, well, culture vulture-ing. The album assimilates Prince’s aesthetic with uncanny ease: grafting together two of the artist’s early-‘90s single titles for the languorous “Peaches & Cream” and trying on his lubricious falsetto for the aforementioned “Debra.” Beck’s obvious affection for His Royal Badness—not to mention his greater facility for singing vis-à-vis rapping—helps make these moments more homage than mockery; and “Debra,” with its wry suburbanization of slow-jam seduction tropes, contains some of the album’s most genuinely witty lyrics. The dense, sprawling “Milk & Honey,” meanwhile, sounds like nothing so much as a sleek extension of Odelay at its genre-hopping best, with a mid-song breakdown that pulls together icy synthesizer riffs, ‘70s funk clavinet and vintage video game sound effects.

It’s this sense of unabated sonic playfulness that makes the whole of Midnite Vultures ultimately exceed the sum of its parts: enlivening a bit of doggerel like “Mixed Bizness” into a durably elastic alt-funk jam and elevating filler tracks like “Broken Train” and “Pressure Zone” into appealing detours. Even the deliberately monotonous electro of “Get Real Paid” is rife with arresting details, from the layers of squelching synthesizers to Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s lithe bass licks. I’ve admittedly never had much time for the incongruous stab at emotional resonance on “Beautiful Way”—and even less so now that I’ve recognized it as a thinly-veiled rewrite of the 1969 Velvet Underground demo “Countess from Hong Kong.” For the majority of its runtime, though, this may be Beck’s best-sounding album.

Not much of the Midnite Vultures’ aesthetic remains in Beck’s music today, and that’s both a good and a bad thing: good in the sense that he hasn’t done anything as embarrassing as “Hollywood Freaks” in a while, but bad in the sense that a little bit of the album’s joie de vivre could have gone a long way toward invigorating his most recent album, 2017’s listless Colors. Certainly, the patina of elder-statesman respectability that settled around him after winning the 2015 Album of the Year Grammy for Morning Phase would not have been possible with an album as reckless and occasionally tasteless as Midnite Vultures. For some, maybe, that’s a sign of maturity; but I’d forego a dozen more earnest singer-songwriter albums to see Beck squeeze back into Vultures’ pink vinyl pants, one last time.

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