Has Beck's Versatility Hurt His Status as a Rock Legend?

Beck's latest tour is giving fans what they want.
Beck's latest tour is giving fans what they want. Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel
Beck should be bigger than he is right now.

That might seem like a ridiculous statement considering he's coheadlining a massive amphitheater tour with Cage the Elephant and Spoon, but take a listen to his 25-year discography and you might conclude that his forays into various musical stylings add up to an inconsistent career output.

Listen to his 1994 major-label debut, Mellow Gold, through to his latest single, "Saw Lightning." You'll want to dance, you'll want to cry, and you'll be confused. And at some point, he'll lose you.

Some critics have commented that Beck's mixture of folk and hip-hop on "Loser," with its samples and slide guitar, paved the way for the modern-day monster success of "Old Town Road." But relistening to his next record, his 1996 magnum opus, Odelay, will really blow your mind. From the slowed-down white-boy hip-hop of "Where It's At" to the Willie Nelson-esque "Jack-Ass," it all holds up to modern ears as a precursor to the playlist era.

But after doing some chronological listening, you have to wonder if that same versatility stopped Beck from being placed on a higher pedestal in music history. After Odelay, he got more thematic with his next few records. The 1998 album Mutations was a chill collection of ballads. Still, as a scholar and aficionado of all the great music that came before him, Beck couldn't quite give up his eclecticism. The record includes slight tinges of honky-tonk on "Canceled Check" and a dash of Brazilian psychedelia on "Tropicalia," but there's a definite effort to slow things.

Barely a year later came 1999's Midnite Vultures, which might be the closest thing to a Prince album recorded by anyone who isn't from Minnesota. One part homage to '70s funk and soul, one part homage to Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Vultures is the sound Childish Gambino has spent his entire career trying to re-create. With lyrics like "I want to get with you/And your sister/I think her name's Debra" or "I'll let you be my chaperone/At the halfway home," Vultures could be confused for a comedy album. But Weird Al Yankovic never had musicianship like Beck. If it was a joke, he went all in. His live show during that era was supported by a killer band complete with backing singers and a brass band. Beck was free to do his best imitation of Mick Jagger dancing like James Brown.

But three years later, Beck returned with Sea Change, an almost comatose batch of acoustic heartbreak songs. It was beloved by critics, and listening to it now with unprejudiced ears, you can't deny its quiet beauty. But it seems like a thousand artists coming off a bad breakup could have created the album. His live shows at the time were a far cry from the energetic concerts in support of Vultures. After that tour, watching Beck sit down to strum six strings felt like a bore and a waste, and it possibly led to his near-irrelevance over the next decade.

Buying a ticket to a Beck show had become a risky proposition. Which rendition of a musical James would he deliver: "James Brown" Beck or "James Taylor" Beck? One version of Beck couldn't help but alienate fans of the other version of Beck.

As he continued to put out music over the next few years, Morning Phase emerged as his noteworthiest release, even going on to win the 2015 Grammy for Album of the Year. But it's probably best remembered for Kanye West crashing Beck's acceptance speech at the ceremony to argue that Beyoncé should have won the award for her self-titled album. Beck is far enough into his long career that Kanye could have been absolutely wrong and people might still agree with him. As with most aging music legends, nothing Beck creates will ever be as beloved as his early output.

That's why it's encouraging to see that Beck is giving fans what they want on the Night Running Tour: a full career retrospective. He's delivering the dance songs, the sad songs, and every left-field track in between. It's a rare opportunity to appreciate an artist who, as one of music's most clever lyricists and sonic chameleons, should be listed among the greats of rock history.

Beck. With Cage the Elephant, Spoon, and Sunflower Bean. 6 p.m. Friday, August 30, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883. Tickets cost $29.50 to $999 via
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland