I Give Up
by Chris Willie Williams
Let's say there's an artist you love so much that you are convinced that you'll always buy every album they release, for the rest of their career or until you lose all your money in some sort of medical supplement pyramid scheme. How many disappointing albums would this artist have to release before you finally gave up? I know it varies from artist to artist, depending on such things as the intensity of your bond, how much you dislike their new output, and whether you possess what scientists call The Rock Geek Completism Gene, but in general, I'm curious to know how far you all will let an artist skate by solely on long-lasting goodwill.
I ask because I think Beck and I are finally splitsville. He was a hugely important component of the way my musical tastes congealed in high school and college. I admired his willingness to constantly expand his musical territory, moving from the lo-fi Ween-isms of Mellow Gold to the all-dessert genre syntheses of Odelay and ultimately up through the disarmingly sincere heartbreak album Sea Change. This last one was particularly meaningful to me, as it came out while I was going through a difficult breakup, and songs like the dead-eyed “Guess I'm Doing Fine” provided me a much-needed shoulder to cry on.
Since then, I've bought every album Beck came out with, without even thinking about it. Just like buying staple groceries or something: it was a foregone conclusion that I was gonna head to the record store with each new release.
Today, though, I finally picked up on the fact that, of all Beck's post-Sea Change albums—Guero, The Information, Modern Guilt, Morning Phase, Song Reader, and Colors—the only one that I would grade higher than a B- is 2008's inessential-but-breezy Modern Guilt. (Well, that and Charlotte Gainsbourg's very enjoyable album IRM, which was produced and nearly-entirely written by Beck. I recommend it enough to link the "Time of the Assassins" video here so that you may check it out! Now that's service!)
It's not that I hate Beck's newer work, apart from the loathsome Morning Phase, the one that won the "Album of the Year" Grammy. (It's a lazy, insipid song-for-song rewrite of Sea Change, and Sea Change means enough to me that Morning Phase felt like graffiti scrawled across my favorite painting.) His music from the past 15 years hasn't been awful, just forgettable. There's none of the sense of wild exploration that he abundantly secreted in his '90s heyday. Even 2017's radio-ready, EDM-tinged Colors felt less like Beck making his mark on a new genre than like Beck taking the path of least resistance, setting aside his vital songwriting idiosyncrasies and giving himself over to basic, overcompressed pop production. It's fine while it's on, but I can't remember a damn thing about it when it's not in the process of flowing into my ears. It's reached a point where continuing to buy his records would be more due to the sunk-cost fallacy than to any expectation that I'll get any enjoyment from them. They'd simply be inertia purchases.
It's weird because there's a touch of guilt that's accompanying my decision to take Beck off my mental “auto-purchase” list. I know he doesn't particularly need me, and nothing says I can't pick up future albums from him if I hear that he's recaptured the omnivorous creativity of his (and my) youth. But there have been plenty of artists whose albums I've bought until... I just didn't. And it was no big deal. The only thing I really felt upon giving up on, say, Death Cab for Cutie is a vague sense of satisfaction that I will have an extra twelve dollars upon each new album they release. My math-disabled brain can't seem to comprehend that not spending money is not equivalent to actively receiving more money, but it's far too late for me to learn things.
But with Beck, I actually feel bad, like I'm giving a kid up for adoption when he's already well into his teens. I came to the same conclusion with David Byrne earlier this year, after his new American Utopia extended his streak of albums I haven't liked to five, following Grown Backwards, Here Lies Love (with Fatboy Slim), Love This Giant (with St. Vincent), and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (with Brian Eno). Of Montreal, Pet Shop Boys, Mike Doughty, Stars: all artists whose new releases I once not only anticipated, but felt almost duty-bound to purchase, until I finally had to admit we'd reached a parting of the ways. It's always a bummer, but the silver lining is that I now have more money, time, and energy to put toward finding new artists who I'll love enough to slot them into the closest-knit circle of my musical herd.