Credit: Barry Mulling

Beck and the life of a surrealist artist in the mainstream

If you were to watch early footage of Beck performing, before he broke through into the mainstream, you would notice a grungy kid with shabby clothes and a beat-up guitar or, in actual fact, perhaps not even notice him at all. No one could have suspected that he would go on to become one of today’s best-selling alternative songwriters and performers. Beck is no stranger to unfamiliar situations, ironically. In fact, a sense of irony seems to be a consistent strain throughout all his work — especially when he decides to show up in situations where he may seem slightly out of place.

Beck is never predictable, spending much of his career jumping from one genre to the next. Peering into his mind through his lyrics, it’s exactly what one might exact from a genius like Beck; plenty of different themes floating by all underpinned by a peculiar sense of imagery — a surrealist one, at that. When confronted with Beck’s lyrics, we react not by raising our eyebrows in question, but with a wry smile, somehow understanding the poignancy of the seemingly cryptic language. It’s part of what has made him one of the few vital surrealists operating within the mainstream.

Beck has a way with words and melodies; he’s quirky and will always find a new way of saying something important. In doing so, he will usually make you smile with amusing slyness or wry commentary. Indeed, he is a surrealist and not only that, but he is a very funny one too. To give you an example, his most famous song and anthem for Generation X, ‘Loser’, off his 1994 album Mellow Gold kicks off by painting a very surrealistic and peculiar image:

“In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey
Butane in my veins so I’m out to cut the junkie
With the plastic eyeballs, spray paint the vegetables
Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose”

The image that he’s painting is visceral, packed with strange juxtapositions with no literal or direct logic to it. However, it possesses a certain “je ne sais quoi” that has kept his fans begging for more. There is drama, action, and a thrill that you may not want to miss. He invites you into his world with his sharp wit and pop-art attitude; the perfect marriage of two universal languages, music and humour, working as one.

In an interview with the online publication, Another Man, Beck talks about his lyric writing: “I come from a background of poetry and spoken word and while I understand that song lyric writing is a whole different discipline – especially for popular songs – I’m interested in the intersection of that craft with something that draws more from the written word, from poetic forms and different schools of modern writing.” Beck notes that: “Sometimes that can result in lyrics that are a little more abstract, that aren’t as narrative or explicit in their meaning, but that’s the beauty of it. You get to paint pictures of environments or feelings or moods that hopefully evoke a recognizable mindstate.”

Beck is very good at creating “textures”, especially with the titles of his songs and albums. With albums like Colors, Mellow Gold, and Morning Phase, you can taste the image that he is painting. One could make the claim that he is a product of postmodernism; in the tradition of the pop art collage derived from the likes of Andy Warhol and William Burroughs – but not so much in a straight academic sense. While he is not necessarily known to use the famous “cut-up” technique like David Bowie; Beck’s songs are never one-dimensional. His first two albums revealed fairly quickly that he was immersed in experimentation with sounds and ideas; the albums are a product of a society that’s beside itself and unable to reconcile this frustration; it is seeking a target for its pent up rage.

Beck, it would seem, knows better, he turns pop music around and makes it look itself in its plastic face. This is exemplified in the genre of the first two albums, a genre he pretty much invented: “anti-folk”. His third album, Mellow Gold, marked his progression into the more adventurous territory, combining multiple genres and, in turn, foreshadowing the rise of his chameleonic star, whose fearlessness and genre-bending is one-of-a-kind. In this album, he fused folk music with hip-hop, blues, rock, and psychedelia.

Beck operates within whimsical but familiar boundaries. He often teeters on the edge of succumbing to a trend and making it his own. The way he walks this line is through his sense of irony; he’s not afraid to parody himself. With songs like ‘Wow (It’s like right now)’ from LP Colors, he is simultaneously following a very recognisable trend within pop music, but it is very much on the nose — a hyperbolic statement. He’s allowing the song to look at itself in the mirror and, in a sense, it makes fun of itself. That is, after all, the essence of pseudo-irony which stems from postmodernism.

Although Beck has appeared multiple times on the top Billboard Charts, his reputation as an original artist with integrity has, for the most part, remained intact. He most notably shook the mainstream world when he took home a grammy for “Album of the Year” for his Morning Phase record in 2015. Morning Phase was a departure from his upbeat, genre-bending, surrealist lyric approach to songwriting, and a return to an older album of his, Sea Changes. During the 2015 Grammy Awards, Beck was up against the likes of Beyonce and Sam Smith, two massive names in the pop establishment. If you can imagine how Americans feel when their presidential candidate, lost because of the Electoral College, despite receiving the majority of the popular votes, then you can imagine how pop fans — who probably vastly outnumber Beck’s army of devotees — felt when The Recording Academy chose Morning Phase. While not necessarily his usual pop art collage aesthetic, one song ‘Blue Moon’, is a simple nod to the idea of just being a songwriter. A simple songwriter with his guitar won over the powerhouse of a performer, Beyonce. Her fans and much of the viewing public were stunned.

One of the more interesting risks Beck made to his own standing in the alternative world, was when he supported U2 on a world tour. It was right before his 2017 album Colors came out. During the songwriting process for this album, Beck said in an interview with Lane Brown of Vulture: “Colors is not really related to other records I’ve made. I had to invent a new formula. The difference between this album and [2014’s acoustic] Morning Phase was the difference between playing a team sport and taking a long hike through the middle of nowhere by yourself.”

This album also saw Beck, for the first time ever, work with another songwriter, “The first day Greg and I started working together, in January or February of 2013, we talked about the music we both love, from Prince to the Beatles to the Clash to the Pixies. Then we got up and jammed, and ‘Dear Life’ was what just came out. It was the easiest song on the album to do, and I think the record could have gone more in this direction.” After his tour with U2, Beck received a lot of criticism from his own fans, and when playing shows, audience members would shout obscenities about Bono. Later, in an interview with Tom Lamont of The Guardian, Beck explained his choice: “So, so, so, should we go and hide in our little corner? Or should we go and engage with the world? As time goes on, I’m more interested in being in the place you’re not supposed to be. I don’t know what the rules are.” 

Beck will always remain who he is, unapologetically, and if he has to change, then he will do so as artfully as he always does. And he will also do so with a smile on his face.

Watch Beck perform ‘Blue Moon’ on Austin City Limitsm below.

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