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Beck's Got a Brand New Bag

The constantly evolving singer-songwriter could be the hardest-working man in pop today.

November 14, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

You don't envy the photographers waiting to shoot Beck in a Hollywood studio, where he's spending the day in front of cameras rather than the two turntables and a microphone that are the trademarks of his invigorating live shows.

The 29-year-old pop auteur has just left the makeup room, where stylists have fussed over his hair and helped him slip into a sharply cut suit. But there's nothing they can do to help the photographers overcome that classic Beck gaze.

Some rock stars are difficult subjects because they are so used to projecting a particular image that it's hard to get an honest expression from them. The challenge with Beck is getting any expression.

It's this blank, boyish look that made him seem the ideal poster boy for the slacker generation six years ago, when he first caught the rock world's attention with the hit single "Loser." The single came out at the height of the media's fascination with the supposed aimlessness and apathy that it saw in Gen-X. Coupled with Beck's deadpan delivery, the song's signature line--"I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me"--seemed to echo the Gen-X stereotypes.

Despite the success he's achieved since, he still looks like an innocent, waif-like rube in his photos--someone who would have been ideal alongside Deputy Barney Fife in the fictional world of Mayberry.

Yet photographers line up to shoot Beck, because for pop aficionados he is the ultimate in '90s hip. Rolling Stone has already been by for some shots, and now it's GQ's turn.

"Some days it seems like all of Cool World orbits around Beck Hansen," declared Spin magazine. "[He] is cover-leaping, poll-sweeping, chart-hopping, Grammy-copping proof that you can be weird, cool, brainy and popular, all at the same time." An equally enthusiastic Rolling Stone described Beck as "perhaps the decade's most innovative and prolific new voice."

Beck's last album, "Odelay," was an imaginative blend of hip-hop and folk-rock traditions that was named the best album of 1996 by the nation's pop critics.

His new CD, titled "Midnite Vultures" and due in stores Nov. 23, is another artistic triumph, a wildly inventive collection of party delights you can picture as the soundtracks for millennium celebrations in countless living rooms and dorms. Seductive and fun, it features Beck as soul man--part Prince, part Sly Stone, part pure magic.

Behind the magic, however, is an extraordinary degree of artistic commitment. Far from the casual slacker image--an image he's always hated--Beck makes great music because he devotes himself to it in a way that borders on obsession. At the expense of almost any personal life, he worked 12 to 16 hours a day for more than a year making "Midnite Vultures."

In an age of disposable pop, Beck, indeed, is one of the few major players with his eye on the long run. It's that combination of integrity and talent that makes him seem to stand the best chance of the '90s pop-rock arrivals of giving us interesting and influential music for years. The music may waver in and out of the mainstream, but it is likely to be adventurous and substantial in the tradition of Neil Young or Tom Waits.

"I remember when I was 20 and thinking about all the amazing musicians who come out and do a few great things, and then something happens," Beck says. "It's like they go through a door of success and it changes them. The thing I wondered was whether they just burn out or do they get distracted by the success? My dream was to go through that door and still do interesting things.

"I could have very easily come out with another 'Odelay' and been finished in a couple of months. But that would have been obvious and cheap. Besides, I had a very specific thing in my head, and I wasn't willing to stop until it was done. If you hear one single part of the new record, there are probably 40 different ideas we tried before choosing that one. At times it felt like we were going to hell and back on each song, but I knew what I wanted. I don't know if that [drive] is a blessing or a curse. . . ."

*

The first thing you notice about Beck as he settles into a booth in a Hollywood restaurant is how fast the blank look gives way to the expressions photographers would love to capture on film. He's personable, smart and quick to smile. He also speaks easily.

So why the stiffness during photo shoots?

"I'm just not a model and I'm not trying to create an image," he says, with a smile. "It's just the opposite, I'm just being me. If you want me to be expressive or catch a personality, take a picture of me cooking breakfast or take a picture of me driving in the car listening to my favorite songs.

"I see a lot of people who play up for the camera so that they'll be 'interesting,' but they seem to be trying too hard. I don't like to appear like I'm 'trying' to be something. It just seems false and it makes me feel uncomfortable."

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