Beck has worn two stylistic hats (or is it masks?) from the start. He was once best known as the junkyard prankster of Mellow Gold and Odelay. That version of Beck was the life of the party, a troubadour of wild nonsense. But there’s been another softer, in-between Beck, a troubadour of heartsickness who first emerged on One Foot in the Grave (after Mellow Gold and before Odelay) and Mutations (after Odelay and before the wonderful Midnite Vultures). Sea Change and Morning Phase (his two most-serious albums) were good enough that Fun Beck has been overshadowed by Melancholy Beck, especially after the latter album won the top Grammy statuette over Beyonce’s self-titled bombshell (to Kanye West’s, and the internet’s, chagrin).
Last year’s “Dreams”, and his latest single “Wow”, find Beck oscillating, on schedule, back towards buoyant dadaism. Both songs are lush, pillowy affairs with an incessant, percussive thump. “Wow” feels akin to the funky Prince-indebted raspberries of Midnite Vultures. (See, for example, its fabulous cover art.) Despite its trap undercurrents, “Wow” cribs from various incongruent, and less-fashionable, sources. Its central hook is a tootling motif that recalls, of all things, James Horner’s tin-whistle melody from Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. Parts of “Wow” also nod to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Wild Horses”. Giddy-up!
The song’s lyrics, on the other hand, are thoughtful nonsense, carefully edited comic-book exclamations. And yet, “Wow” isn’t particularly carefree, or even fun. There’s an underlying menace to Beck’s ridiculous non-sequiturs. Still, the whirling, controlled chaos of “Wow” offers a refreshing contrast to the strumming woe of his last album and, more importantly, the forced cheer of every up-tempo album since Midnite Vultures. With “Dreams”, and now “Wow”, Beck has recaptured his original puckish spirit. Neither song feels effortless, which is OK. I’ll happily settle for thrill without spontaneity.