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Metro, August 15

By Ben Kim

A week ago Thursday, around the same time Bob Dole took the stage in San Diego to accept his party’s nomination, Beck assumed charge of his partisans at Metro. The parallel conventions make for an interesting virtual debate between an old man desperately seeking outsider status and a young man who had it conferred upon him without asking.

Dole: “When I look back upon my life, I see less and less of myself, and more and more of the history of this civilization that we have made that is called America. And I am content and always will be content to see my own story subsumed in great events, the greatest of which is the simple onward procession of the American people.”

Beck: “Something’s wrong ’cause my mind is fading / Everywhere I look there’s a dead end waiting / Temperature’s dropping at the rotten oasis / Stealing kisses from the leprous faces / Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees / Mouthwash jukebox gasoline / Pistols are pointing at a poor man’s pockets / Smiling eyes ripping out of their sockets.”

When in 1994 the Geffen hype machine caught hold of Beck’s “Loser,” a one-off single released independently the year before, and passed it on to the rock-listening public as an into-the-black Gen-X anthem, the young and deceptively slothful-looking wordsmith found himself drafted to head a ticket that he himself would never punch. Though he claimed he’d never intended to speak for anyone but himself, he became, in his own sarcastic term, the “uberslacker.” Like many a leader of men before him, he had been found in the right place at the right time, saying the right things.

And like many a man before him, Beck seems to have gone with it. But Odelay, his second major-label album and the true follow-up to the smash Mellow Gold, is no lame duck. It’s the best work he’s done yet, one of the year’s most captivating efforts, and the sophomore jinx breaker many doubted he had in him.

Beck is often lumped in with other white rappers who’ve achieved both critical and commercial successes–an elite corps comprising the Beastie Boys and…well, Beck. The comparison has some merit, since Odelay was produced by the Dust Brothers (Mike Simpson and John King), the sonic architects who helped build the greatest white rap album–and one of the greatest rap albums of all time, period–the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique. The Beasties’ second album was not only startlingly inventive in its own right; it was also a commercially risky departure from the bratty hard-rock rap of their debut, Licensed to Ill, which sold more than four million copies, primarily to young, white males who savored the familiar but slightly funky taste of puerility and metal.

To bean counters, Paul’s Boutique ranks as one of the worst sophomore stiffs in pop history, down there with Arrested Development’s Zingalamaduni. It also marked the Beasties’ passage from novelty act to serious artistic force. Beck’s novelty, more complex than that of the Beasties, faded before Mellow Gold could sell a million copies. Odelay is more complex than its predecessor, but without an apparent hit like “Loser.” It’s anyone’s guess whether Odelay will post respectable returns.

But on the dais, Beck proved himself a savvy and seasoned campaigner, relying–much like his counterpart in San Diego–on old-fashioned showmanship. Few in the alternative rock cohort hew to this traditional approach, because it’s come to be considered insincere. It requires either an excess of irony or an utter lack of it. But the reputedly low-key Beck, preceded by a reputation as a hit-or-miss live performer, worked the stage with an unbridled ebullience that bespoke a great confidence in himself, his material, and his audience.

In one remarkable split-second flourish, during the last measure of the bridge of his third song, “Novacane,” he grabbed a towel, whipped it across his brow, and jumped forward to grab the mike for the downbeat of the next verse. Minutes later, astonishingly, he busted out with the electric slide and the robot, as if he were wearing the magical “chain-smoke-Kansas-Flashdance-ass pants” he’d described. During several raps he kept his left arm raised high, elevated by some kind of oratorical or spiritual fervor. He’s been hanging out with Jon Spencer, who has apparently rubbed off on him.

His last time in Chicago, two years ago at this same venue, Beck indulged in a lengthy solo acoustic interlude that, while appropriate–at least a third of his recorded songs and many of his best ones take this form–nonetheless stopped the show’s momentum dead. In their restiveness, the all-ages Q101 crowd sabotaged the relative quietude by both moshing and chatting.

This time Beck dispatched “Loser” halfway through the set without the slightest hint that it might be drudgery for him–indeed, his dramatic gestures would have done Neil Diamond proud. He thus “earned” the acoustic interlude, which he kept short and rousing; he even invited a fan to sing “Satan Gave Me a Taco,” on which she choked. Later he dusted off one of James Brown’s oldest routines: reappearing after the main set’s furiously funky close, he momentarily “fainted,” was fanned back to consciousness by his band, and moments later, during the first encore (“Beercan”), kept dropping to his knees and then springing up.

Both candidates–the one from Kansas and the one from Toto-I-don’t-think-we’re-in-Kansas–know how to flip-flop, but only one of them can do the splits. That’s Beck, who in acting the loser became a winner.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Beck, by Dan Silverman.