34. Beck - Loser

The word revolutionary is thrown around by writers like me who try to inflate the importance of what they're writing about.  If you say something is revolutionary, then that's a bold statement (to steal a line from Vincent in Pulp Fiction) that you'd better back up.  Going through all my posts (thank God for Fiefox's search function), I realize I've used it before.  Four times to be exact.  But I stand by each one, and I'll let you decide if I throw it around too much by listing the other references.  I talked about the revolutionary production values of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Sly & the Family Stone starting a funk revolution, the Beastie Boys' revolutionary "Sabotage," which turned rap on its head, and the revolutionary idea of Metallica being backed by a symphony orchestra.  I stand by all of those statements and don't think any of them are a reach.  So only four (now five) uses in over sixty-five posts is judicious and responsible, I think.  So on to revolutionary reference #5.

What Beck pulled off in 1994, with the release of his album Mellow Gold, absolutely qualifies as revolutionary.  Nobody before Beck had mixed so many disparate styles of music together so seemlessly (I say this definitively, even though I've no solid research on my side, other than I've listened to thousands of records over my forty years and pay a lot of attention to the music.  So I got that going for me, which is nice.).  Folk and hip-hop had been mixed together before a little, but never to the extent that Beck did on Mellow Gold.  Artists like De La Soul had mixed some folk influences into their songs in the past, but this was a complete departure.  These were folk songs that could stand on their own with Beck playing them alone with a guitar in a coffeehouse. 

Okay, I'm not sure how to do this.  Normally in these posts, I focus on the song that I'm writing about and don't usually stray too far from it.  But since I'm putting my reputation (if there even is one) on the line about the revolutionary thing, so I wanted to talk about the whole Mellow Gold album as well.  Here are some thoughts on each song:

On Mellow Gold, every song had something in it that no one had ever heard before.  There are multiple influences all over the album but Beck puts his own spin on each.  Here's a breakdown of each song, just to show what I'm talking about.  "Pay No Mind" could be a Tom Waits song.  "Fuckin' with My Head" is a folk song put in a blender with an Allman Brothers Band song.  "Whiskeyclone" sounds like he just picked up a guitar, didn't check to see if it was in tune or not, and then wrote himself a Woody Guthrie type song, if Woody Guthrie was suicidal.  "Soul Suckin' Jerk" takes some of the ideas pioneered in "Loser" down another path, this time with a bass line that sounds like a fart at times.  "Truckdrivin' Neighbors Downstairs" sounds like a Johnny Cash song, kinda.  "Sweet Sunshine" starts of with some latin rhythms slowed waaaay down and then adds layers of massively distorted lyrics on top of them.  "Beercan" starts of like "Dream Weaver," but then adds some swirling guitars and a funky bass line (and that kid's xylophone) while mixing in some Robert Palmer-style vocals.  "Steal My Body Home" mixes Middle Eastern influences with a morose country drawl in the vocals, as if Beck were half-asleep when he recorded them.  "Nitemare Hippy Girl" is the song Ryan Adams would've wrote if he spent less time getting into arguments with his audience.  "Mutherfucker" sounds like it came from a Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson album.  "Blackhole" is pure blues, start to finish, but it still works in the context of the whole album.

Now I'm not saying that Beck is stealing from all these artists and is unoriginal crap.  Quite the opposite.  The fact that he can take such divergent influences and mix them all together, ending up with a splendid Jackson Pollack painting made of sound, rather than pigment, is proof of his musical genius.  It's just that his genius is stuck in the mind of a twelve year-old who has found all sorts of new toys.
 Now back to "Loser"........

It starts with that bluesy slide guitar, sounding like a Delta blues song unearthed from the '30s.  Then the drum machine comes in and fucks that all up.  Is this a blues song?  A folk song?  A hip-hop song?  Um, yes.  Then you add a sitar in the mix to shake things up and my brain is about to explode.  Either this is the coolest thing I've ever heard or it's the biggest piece of crap.  But I couldn't stop listening to it.  And when it stopped, I listened to it four more times.  So it became the former.

The first line sets the tone for the pure acid trip of the lyrics:  "In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey."  Then there's the line in the song is where he sings "Soy un perdedor" before "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?"  Soy un perdedor is just Spanish for I'm a loser, and I love that he sings the Spanish line first, just to throw people off.  Everybody was calling up their friend who knew Spanish asking them what the heck that meant.  He even puts it in backwards near the end of the song just for fun (and to get those people who sued Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne about the backwards masking of lyrics inciting those kids who killed themselves all worked up).

The rest of the lyrics are even more weird.  Normally, I put in grouped lines of lyrics that are poignant or to help illustrate a point that I'm trying to make.  But that can't really happen in "Loser" because the lyrics are a mish-mosh of thoughts that don't make any particular sense, but are still intellectually compelling.  I can't explain it, but I love it.  So instead of doing the normal thing, I'm going to list some of my favorite lines throughout the song (along with my thoughts):

  • Butane in my veins so I'm out to cut the junkie (God, I hate it when a drug dealer screws me)
  • Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose (I spent five minutes breaking this sentence down and still can't find a cogent thought there)
  • Stock car flamin' with a loser and the cruise control (Cruise control always gets the bad rap, doesn't it?)
  • Got a couple of couches sleep on the love seat (Beck's a small guy, so that makes sense, I guess)
  • Someone keeps sayin I'm insane to complain about a shotgun wedding and a stain on my shirt (Yeah, I know.  That was a really nice shirt.)
  • You get a parking violation and a maggot on your sleeve (Which is worse?)
  • Savin' all your food stamps and burnin' down the trailer park (You always gotta have a plan, don't you)
  • Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare (If bozo's involved, it's always a nightmare)
  • 'Cause one's got a weasel and the other's got a flag (Thankfully, I'm the one with the flag)
  • Slap the turkey neck and it's hangin' on a pigeon wing (Is it hangin' on the pigeon wing because I slapped it, or was it already there?)
  • And my time is a piece of wax fallin' on a termite who's chokin' on the splinters (Does anybody know the termite Heimlich?)
  • Get crazy with the Cheeze Whiz (Okay, I've got my two cans of Cheeze Whiz.  Now what?)

I don't know what any of it means, but I laugh the whole way through.  Is that what I'm supposed to do?  I'm not sure, but maybe that's the point.

Two videos on this one.  First is the video (also fascinating) and second is a documentary about the making of the Mellow Gold album, released on its tenth anniversary.  Cool stuff.

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