One Foot In The Grave

1993 was no year to be a teenage rebel in America. Whitney Houston spent much of the it straddling the charts with ‘I Will Always Love You’. Nirvana did too, with ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, but they’d long since inhabited a different world from whence they sprang. As the New York Times noted primly that summer, "Today, the words ‘punk rock’ are used to sell Subarus on television, grungewear is available at the local mall, and any rocker with grubby hair, loud guitars and a nasty attitude could be the next Top 10 hero." The article was entitled, "’Indie’ Rock Settles Into the Executive Suite".

1994 was, at first, no better. White-supremacist synth-pop jokers Ace of Base dominated the radio that spring, turning school parties, shopping centres and pretty much any other public space into no-go zones for sensitive ears. But then, as Jarvis was busy scribbling into a notebook on the other side of the Atlantic, something changed.

Hardly any of my crowd had heard of Beck Hansen in January — a friend’s older brother vaguely remembered giving him a lift once, after a gig in LA, and his muddled performance, sullen demeanour and personal hygiene seemed beyond salvation. But by March he was our patron saint. ‘Loser’ had slammed into the Billboard Hot 100 like a drunken car crash and we soaked up and spat back its rapid-fire patter about chimpanzees, trailer parks and Cheez Whiz. Then Beck took advantage of a unique clause in his shiny new Geffen contract to sneak out two he’d recorded earlier — the abrasive, shambolic bag of weirdness that is Stereopathetic Soul Manure, on Flipside, and my own favourite, then and now, K Records’ spare, folky One Foot in the Grave.

OFITG is popularly known, if it is known at all, as a kind of proto-Mutations, although its rawness holds far more charm and inspiration than the latter’s polished production. With sluggish, nasal vocals backed up by twangy acoustic guitar, it is laid-back to the point of deadened ennui, and in that sense it feels as fresh and contemporary as anything from the Jeffrey Lewis/Adam Green stable. (Kids, anti-folk started in New York before you were even born.) Still, it is striking to hear Beck’s voice in such an unpolished state. Sounding like he’s got a nasty head cold, he drawls leadenly through a phlegm-filled throat. Calvin Johnson, who also produced, joins in on a few tracks, caterwauling in the background like a drunken pal who didn’t bother to learn the words before showing up. The rest of the liner notes sketch out a sort of indie supergroup — Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America on guitar and bass, James Bertram and Scott Plouf of Built to Spill on bass and percussion.

The album may be deadpan and obtuse, but there are enough bursts of fuzz and feedback, enough moments of wailing frustration, to keep it burning. The ragged, Leadbelly-esque blues of opener ‘He’s a Mighty Good Leader’ (a cover of a Skip James tune) and ‘Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods’ are probably as close as Beck has ever come to emotional sincerity. The love songs, on the other hand, are adolescent and awkward — the muttered chorus, "She’ll do anything, she’ll do anything, she’ll do anything, to make you feel like an asshole" is a lyrical low point, even if a funny one. But then there are the abstract, almost mystical intonations of ‘Forcefield’, its layered, staggered vocals backed up by hypnotic strummed guitar. An ethereal, tender air surrounds meditative gems like ‘See Water’ and ‘Hollow Log’. Even this early in Beck’s career, songs are alternately grinding and sniggering, hazily nostalgic and freaked-out, apocalyptic and absurd.

The bonus tracks on this reissue are generous in number, doubling the size of the album. Like the original 16, they are short — hovering around two minutes, some just over a minute — and spare. Weirdly, although they are all originals, many sound less like Beck himself than like Beck doing an upbeat covers set, taking in the Velvet Underground (‘Whiskey Can Can’), the Violent Femmes (‘Mattress’), Simon & Garfunkel (‘Woe On Me’), Teenage Fanclub (‘Teenage Wastebasket’) and the Vaselines (‘Piss on the Door’). A few are just slight, like ‘Your Love is Weird’, in which the listener is treated to rhyming couplets such as, "I live in fear, I have no beer". It is fair to wonder if this one may not have been better off staying in the vault.

Still, there are plenty of surprises and treats. ‘Black Lake Morning’ is a beautiful, sombre instrumental. ‘Sweet Satan’ is an unsteady, chilling, first-person a capella tale of an attack by a lynch mob. And the exuberant title track, which didn’t appear on the original, mixes virtuoso blues harmonica with proto-‘Loser’ thick-voiced rapping over what sounds like the slap of an enthusiastic fist on a cardboard box. The album closes with an alternate take of ‘I Get Lonesome’, a speedier, sparer, more insistent version of the lugubrious original. Given Beck’s subsequent metamorphoses into disco-funk-R&B sex god and then the Scientology barminess of recent years, it feels like a poignant comment on his career to date: "Well, there ain’t nobody left to impress, and everyone’s kissing their own hands . . . I stomp on the floor just to make a sound. I get lonesome."

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