At first glance, it seems like the teaming of Beck and Danger Mouse is a perfect pairing of postmodern pranksters, as neither musician has shaken the first impression he's made: for most, Beck is still seen as that ironic Loser, trawling through pop culture's junk heap, while Danger Mouse is the maverick of The Grey Album, the mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z that reads like a joke but doesn't play like one. Close listening to either man's body of work easily dispels these notions, as Beck has spent as much time mining the murky melancholia of Mutations as he has crafting neon freakouts like Midnite Vultures. He's made a career bouncing from one extreme to the other, occasionally revisiting the cut 'n' paste collage that would have seemed like a natural fit for the sample-centric Danger Mouse, but when he partnered with Danger Mouse in 2008, Beck's pendulum was swinging away from the Odelay aesthetic, as he spent two records on the lighter side, thereby dictating a turn toward the dark. As it happens, this is Danger Mouse's true forte, as his productions have almost uniformly been dark, impressionistic pop-noir, whether he's working with Damon Albarn on the Gorillaz or the Good, the Bad & the Queen, or collaborating with Cee-Lo as Gnarls Barkley (whose fluke hit "Crazy" had nasty rumbling undercurrents) or even blues-rockers the Black Keys. So, he turns out to be a perfect fit for Beck, just perhaps not in the way that many might expect, although the title of their album Modern Guilt should be a big tip-off that these ten tracks are hardly all sunshine and roses.
Compared to the waves of grief on Sea Change, Modern Guilt trips easily, as this is a deft tapestry of drum loops, tape splices, and chugging guitars pitched halfway between new wave and Sonic Youth. This may not brood but it's impossible to deny its heaviness, either in its tone or its lyrics. Beck peppers Modern Guilt with allusions to jets, warheads, suicide, all manners of modern maladies, and if the words don't form coherent pictures, the lines that catch the ear create a vivid portrait of unease, a vibe that Danger Mouse mirrors with his densely wound yet spare production. As on his work with Albarn and the Black Keys, Danger Mouse doesn't impose his own aesthetic as much as he finds a way to make it fit with Beck's, so everything here feels familiar, whether it's the swinging '60s spy riff on "Gamma Ray," the rangy blues on "Soul of Man," the stiff shuffle of the title track, or the thick and gauzy "Chemtrails," which harks back to the sluggish, narcotic psychedelia of Mutations. Danger Mouse assists not only with execution but with focus, pulling in Modern Guilt at just over half an hour, which is frankly a relief after the unending sprawl of The Information and Guero. Its leanness is one of the greatest attributes of Modern Guilt, as every song stays as long as it needs to, then lingers behind in memory, leaving behind a collection of echoes and impressions. If anything, Modern Guilt may be just a little bit too transient, as it doesn't dig quite as deep as its subjects might suggest, but that's also par for the course for both Beck and Danger Mouse: they tend to prefer feel to form. Here, they deliver enough substance and style to make Modern Guilt an effective dosage of 21st century paranoia.