Do you ever get that thing, when you’re scrolling through your music library and choosing what to listen to next, and you happen upon an album that you used to love, and you think: “Oh, I forgot this even existed! And now… I know I’m going to hate it.” That was my experience a few days ago when, tidying my office, I was looking for something upbeat and energetic that I hadn’t listened to a million times recently, and I happened upon the 1999 album Midnite Vultures by Beck.
Obviously, I didn’t hate it, or I wouldn’t be writing about it for a website called Eulogize This. But what I loved about it was absolutely not what I was expecting. Not least because this time I was really, really expecting to hate it. But let me backtrack a little.
What I thought of it back then
I have a vivid memory of way back in the day: a drive home from a day out in Liverpool, with a friend in the backseat who went on to be one of the founders of the Eulogize This site. I put this album on, and he commented sarcastically that the singer “clearly has a lot of pain to share”. It stuck in my memory because he actually pinpointed with pixel accuracy the very core of what this album is about. I’m hard-pressed to think of any album which feels to me to be less autobiographical, less personal, less intimate, less… all of the things that usually draw me to an album.
But hey, that was Britain in the late 90s. Economic growth was taken for granted. Wealth inequality seemed (to the unobservant like me at least) to be shrinking so quickly that middle class people were falling over themselves to emulate the glamour of a working class lifestyle, before it disappeared completely. Lad culture ruled. Everything in British culture was varnished with about 8 layers of irony, until it shone like a vintage 1970s furniture. And this was one of the reasons why idiot English youths like me told ourselves that we were that bit sharper, edgier, cooler than our American cousins. Americans couldn’t help but try too hard. Us English really didn’t mean anything we said. (We used to say that “Americans don’t get irony” – something no one would think of suggesting since Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. Sadly, it seems like these days they don’t get anything but irony.)
So I knew the album was kind of shallow, and I had no problem with that. In fact, my initial feeling about Midnite Vultures was that I liked it, a lot, but I felt maybe it was trying a bit too hard. Trying to emulate James Brown or David Bowie or one of the previous generation’s super-confident sex symbols. But whereas the British stars of the late 90s like Robbie Williams artfully created these post-modern celebrity personas, Beck avoided projecting any clear kind of persona, instead choosing to hide behind clever lyrics and mad production and an overflowing melting pot of different cultures and genres. I think (and I’m shaking my head as I write this) that I might have interpreted that as a lack of confidence on Beck’s part. As though he was trying and failing to be a Britpop celebrity. There was so much swagger in the air. And this seemed an unremarkable example of it, except in that it was a bit over the top.
It was definitely a popular album at the time though. Everyone particularly loved the closing song, ‘Debra’ (recently referenced in the film Baby Driver). And I found the songs enjoyably catchy, and genuinely inventive. From the lyrics to the arrangements to the production. Whatever I may have thought about its place in the ‘cannon’ (back before I hated the idea of critically-approved ‘cannons’), I listened to it a lot.
What I was sure I’d think of it now
But how could I enjoy this now in a post-Weinstein world? I’m so used to listening to music I grew up on, and realising that I never really paid attention to the lyrics. (“Okay, well that song is about coercing a girl to have sex… and… so is that one… and that one…”) And I felt there was a 90% certainty that I’d get 2 bars into Midnite Vultures and find it dated, offensive, and just all wrong. I mean, for the all the revelations that have been in the news recently, the Pandora’s Box that is 1990s Lad Culture seems to me like it hasn’t even been noticed, let alone opened. And yes, the US music scene that produced Beck didn’t embrace Ladism in the way that Britain did. But popular music at that point had been running on the fuel of misogyny and youthful delusion for decades, and here was an album that started with a track called ‘Sexx Laws’.
On top of that, this was a massively overproduced album, full of ironic posturing with nothing obvious to say. Surely this would just be… a bit much, right? And to add further fuel to the fire of why I might not like it: after this album, Beck’s follow-up (called Sea Change) dealt with the break-up of his 9-year relationship, and almost seemed to be an admission that he’d musically been going in the wrong direction.
So, all of that said…
What I actually think of it now
First off, it’s fucking bonkers. Just wonderfully wonderfully bonkers. And the fact that there seems to be nothing of the real Beck Hanson in these hyper-arch sex ballads proves to be the album’s saving grace. You could sum it up in the line: “This is the real me, ladies”, because it so clearly isn’t. He’s not channelling Harvey Weinstein; he’s channelling a sort of Looney Tunes version of Prince.
Secondly, this is a great party album. I’d sort of forgotten that party albums exist. And party albums aren’t really supposed to ‘say anything’. They’re supposed to make you feel good, and want to dance. And not creep you out.
I’ve listened through it again a few times now, expecting to hit some big bump in the road, but it’s all so surreal that, to me at least, it’s not a problem. Whether he was genuinely trying to portray himself as a sexy figure, I don’t know, but a recurring feature on the album is that he’ll set up a faux macho cliché and then immediately subvert it:
“She’s alright (touching my body) / She’s alright (on my computer) / She’s alright (selling me watches) / She’s alright (ring on my finger)”
The person that he’s constantly making fun of in these songs is his own mock-sexy persona. No more so than the song ‘Debra’: “I pick you up late at night after work / I said ‘lady, step inside my Hyundai’…”
Okay, so. It passes the “not being Blurred Lines” test – is that really enough to merit a eulogy? Of course not. That only explains why I didn’t end up hating it.
What really surprised me was that this album suddenly, nearly 20 years later, felt surprisingly fresh, and even topical. In fact, I’m wondering if it was always just way way ahead of its time. Whether Beck knew it or not. It’s infused with a genuine love of hip hop culture (whilst having a bit of a dig at its excesses), sonically referencing Missy Elliott, and the West Coast scene of the early 90s. It also has this genuine glamour, swagger, sharp style, inventiveness and genre crossover that I feel we just don’t hear anymore. I hear a lot of current artists doing what I call the ‘music production of excess’, and here it actually works.
But on a more general level, it feels to me now like a total, even brutal, satire of every popular music cliché, particularly concerning gender or sexuality. A satire of all the bullshit lyrics we’ve grown up with, sung by men confidently making ridiculous claims to sexual and criminal prowess.
And weirdly, I realise that all the things that became so annoying in the 90s – superficiality, ironic distance, a blanket taking-the-piss out of everything – seem oddly endearing now. When compared to the tragic and taxidermied culture of Britain at the moment — with reheated cliché after reheated cliché filling our cinemas with anaemic celebrations of Oxbridge, more Oxbridge, Royalty, more Royalty, yet more Royalty, Conservative Prime Ministers, other Conservative Prime Ministers, and then more of the same Conservative Prime Ministers… (full disclosure: I live in Oxford and am literally related to a Conservative Prime Minister, so I obviously have my personal issues with this trend) — Midnite Vultures seems like a joyous neon pink and green explosion in a bleak grey office building. It feels like the musical personification of the Joker, fucking shit up because… well, just because.
Now, I often try to wrap these eulogies up with some sort of quote from the work, that seems to sum up (to me at least) what it’s fundamentally about. This one… I admit, is clutching at straws a bit. But I’m going to go with it anyway, because it touches on an ambiguity that I keep feeling when listening to this album: how serious was he being? Was he making a legitimate point, reacting against toxic masculinity in popular music way back in 1999? Or was he just clowning around for a cheap laugh? I have no idea. But hey, here is the chorus to the first song on the album, ‘Sexx Laws’:
“I wanna defy / The logic of our Sexx Laws / Let the handcuffs slip off your wrist / I’ll let you be my chaperone (at the halfway home) / I’m a full-grown man but I’m… not afraid to cry”