The hardest thing about listening to a Beck album is knowing when to take it seriously.
It isn't just that Beck is one of the most mutable musicians in pop. Over the course of his career, he has moved from earnest, antiquarian folk (1994's "One Foot in the Grave") to slick, post-modern hip-hop (1996's "Odelay"), to gutsy, rough-edged roots rock (last year's "Mutations") as easily as a CD changer switches between songs. Not since Neil Young has rock had a star as eager to upend his audience's expectations.
Still, the most curious thing about 29-year-old Beck Hansen is how completely his work blurs the line between wicked irony and heartfelt sincerity. It's almost as if he doesn't see the difference between the two and as such infuses his new album, "Midnite Vultures" (DGC 0694904852, arriving in stores today) with a dizzying blend of ironic sincerity and sincere irony.
Like "Odelay," "Midnite Vultures" finds Beck in cut-and-paste dance pop mode, building his funky concoctions around turntable-scratch and sampled loops as much as parts played by humans on keyboard, guitar and drums. Some songs, such as "Get Real Paid," are almost entirely sample-driven, while others, like "Beautiful Way," use traditional instruments to piece together his signature pastiche.
Either way, it's hard to say when he's celebrating a sound or style and when he's sending it up. "Sexx Laws," for instance, starts out with the brassy bluster of '60s soul and tools along on a boogaloo beat that celebrates the silliness of vintage "hip" as completely and affectionately as Mike Myers' Austin Powers movies.
Then, out of nowhere, he tosses in a breakdown that flanks the self-conscious modernity of his synthesizer with the down-home twang of banjo and pedal steel guitar. It fits the beat and adds an interesting twist to the arrangement, but as with the non sequiturs Beck sprinkles through his lyrics, it's hard to know if what we're hearing has deeper meanings or is simply surface-level silliness.
On some levels, the distinction doesn't matter. You don't have to puzzle out the musical references scattered through "Nicotine & Gravy" to get off on the groove, nor is it necessary to know, absolutely, whether "Hollywood Freaks" is a celebration or a send-up of the Artist Occasionally Known as Prince - either you're amused by the track, or you aren't.
Still, cleverness doesn't count as content, and after a while, Beck's deft drolleries begin to wear thin. "Midnite Vultures" may be chockablock with quotably curious lyrics and well-chosen samples, but it's distressingly short on memorable songs - and that, ultimately, is its undoing.
What made Beck interesting in the first place wasn't his eclecticism or imagination, it was his ability to write melodies. Without those, his music tends to disappear in its own self-congratulatory cleverness.
What: "Midnite Vultures"
Label: DGC 0694904852
Sun score: * * 1/2