The 2023 Grammys were held this weekend and, among many contentious decisions, Beyoncé’s loss to Harry Styles for Album of the Year was particularly treated with disdain. She’d been there before, of course. In 2015, her self-titled album was overlooked for Album of the Year in favour of Morning Phase, the 12th studio album of Beck.
For Beck has a serious claim to be the greatest alternative rock musician of the last 30 years. As chameleonic as Bowie and as stringently individual as Prince, the Californian has worn many hats – he’s been an anti-folk troubadour, an ironic ’90s rocker, a soulful funk performer, a wistful country crooner – while always firmly remaining Beck in the eyes of the public.
In April, Australian audiences will be offered the privilege of seeing the age-defying artist in an intimate setting. Beck will perform two special headline acoustic shows in Sydney and Melbourne (see full details below), as well as appearing at Bluesfest 2023.
Delving deep into his acoustic roots, these shows will highlight the pure song craft at the heart of Beck’s sound, and further emphasise his unprecedented versatility.
To celebrate his first Australian headline shows in five years, Rolling Stone Australia has compiled a list of 10 Beck songs – in no particular order – that should particularly go down well at his upcoming acoustic shows, from Sea Change classics to weird ’90s outliers to deeply melancholic anthems.
A highlight from 1999’s funky Midnite Vultures, there’s a sultry Prince quality to Beck’s crooning on “Debra”. Unleashing a sublimely silly falsetto, he dons a ludicrous lothario persona, offering a night of rushed romance and – undoubtedly – eventual disappointment to a pair of ladies. Backed by firing horns, the joke is firmly on Beck’s hilariously realised character.
Another classic song, another finely realised Beck character. “I’ve got a stolen wife and a rhinestone life and some good old boys”, Beck’s “Sissyneck” narrator tells us confidently at one point. Country grooves and singsong choruses abound, and it wouldn’t be unexpected to hear this Odelay song come on a dusty midwestern bar. Both a simple homage and winking parody to the lowlifes of Middle America.
“Guess I’m Doing Fine”
When Beck really wants to sink into the mire, he really sinks; not many alternative rockers have managed the drop into melancholia better. In an alternative country cut that predates the contemporaneous curve towards that genre (M.J. Lenderman’s Boat Songs was one of the best albums of last year and feels extremely indebted to the storytelling and wit of Beck), he bravely admits to failures in a former relationship. “It’s only tears that I’m crying /. It’s only you that I’m losing”, he sighs. We’ve all been there.
“The Golden Age”
There aren’t many better opening songs to an album than “The Golden Age” on the masterful Sea Change. The arresting folk rock number was created during Beck’s split from his then-partner as a nine year relationship careened to its end. “The Golden Age” offered no gentle beginnings, no easy answers, Beck dovetailing right into contemplative despair. A world-weary voice carrying heartbroken words.
A towering anthem of emotional turmoil; what else did you expect from a song that opens with the jolting line, “I’m so tired of being alone”. The darkly confessional song finds Beck open, honest, and vulnerable, unafraid to ask for help. “Don’t leave me on my own”, he later begs, with his creaking vocals suggesting a man that knows he’s not entirely blameless.
“One Foot in the Grave”
This ramshackle folk ditty is tailor-made for Beck’s upcoming acoustic shows. After a wheezing harmonica leads the song, Beck’s growling voice emerges, as if from beside a roaring campfire on a far-off mountain. The harmonica disperses, his voice growing deeper, more resentful, as he says, “Don’t go throwin’ no coupons on my grave”. Message received.
“Bottles of Blue”
Taken from 1999’s Mutations, “Bottles of Blue” is a rusty folk song that features Beck’s crisp vocals over a straightforward acoustic guitar line. Its attractiveness lies in its simplicity, though, as you find yourself humming it long after its final note has died out. A tale of drowning alcoholism, ‘Bottles of Blue’s is Beck’s rousing riposte to Elliott Smith’s desolate “Between the Bars”.
“Cyanide Breath Mint”
It’s no surprise that this wonderfully-named song is from One Foot in the Grave, Beck’s 1994 album released on K Records: the endearingly lo-fi number has the DIY influence of the Washington State label’s founder, Calvin Johnson (of Beat Happening fame) all over it, as does the album as a whole. Beck’s witty and barbed lyrics are crystallised atop the corrosive guitar line.
“Heart Is a Drum”
Another stunning song from 2014’s acclaimed Morning Phase, “Heart Is a Drum” is the closest a Beck song has ever come to the haunting beauty of Nick Drake. The soothing melody is relaxed, allowing the heart and soul of Beck’s lyrics, to come to the fore.
Beck 2023 Australian Tour
Presented by Frontier Touring
Monday, April 3rd
Palais Theatre, Melbourne, VIC
Thursday, April 6th
Aware Super Theatre, Sydney, NSW