"Country Down" can be found on Beck's album, Morning Phase
The song began during Beck's now-famous Nashville recording sessions, at which he started to record a fairly traditional country album. He never was fully satisfied with the results, and ended up shelving it, but he did keep 3-4 of the songs and brought them to the Morning Phase
sessions a few years later. Beck told Austin City Limits that "Country Down" had completely different music for a long time, recorded it all over the place, before finally "turning it inside out" and making it "a little less country." He took it to a more melancholy place, which suited the song, and allowed it to fit on Morning Phase in the end. However, ironically enough, with its pedal steel and electric guitar licks and Beck's lonesome harmonica, still feels the closest to pure country music that Beck has ever come (besides some cover songs).
Stepping back a second, in 1998, Beck did a short interview with Rolling Stone
magazine about the upcoming release of Mutations
. Beck talked about how they made "Mutations" with none of the typical 90s flavor, no breakbeats or rap mixed with folk, etc. "I really just let the songs exist outside of town -- I mean, time [laughs]. And outside of town. Not in the suburbs." Beck twisting the phrase "outside of time" to "outside of town" seems to have amused him at the time, and perhaps he kept the line in his head/notebook, using it again years later on "Country Down."
Anyway, throughout Morning Phase
, Beck sings of light, land, and water, and each show up here on "Country Down." Due to this, I take it as a settling ground for many of the albums ideas, a bit of a 'sums it all up' song. It seems to me to be about that place where you finally feel comfortable, after struggling.
Digging into the metaphors, I take the light as hope, land as stability, and water as turmoil. So the song begins at that place in the country, near the turmoil ("all along the floodline" / "weeds hiding downriver right next door"), but not in it, in a more stable place, where the "hills roll out like centuries." This place isn't far from the past, but reads as a haven from it: "the plot against your will is furrowed into your brow / against your better judgment / it's all behind you now."
The next verse twists this safe haven a little--showing that it may be a lonely place. But instead of being darkly lonely, it's expressed as wisdom. Perhaps a little isolation is necessary sometimes ("what's the use in being found when you can lose yourself in some good ground?").
More wisdom finishes the song. Don't stay isolated too long, Beck writes, or it could become a prison (calling back to the 'penitent walls' in "Blue Moon"), and you could lose your hope (here expressed as both a flower trying to grow to sunlight and as being stranded on a ladder).
Played live 22 times:
April 9, 2014April 10, 2014April 16, 2014April 22, 2014April 23, 2014April 24, 2014April 27, 2014June 25, 2014June 27, 2014June 28, 2014
...and 12 more
Earliest known live version: April 9, 2014
Latest known live version: September 23, 20152014 Morning Phase tour
Beck played "Country Down" somewhat sporadically during the 2014 Morning Phase tours. He did it 19 times out of 57 shows, and 12 of those were in the first 20 shows before it more or less vanished. It is a pretty straightforward and laidback song on record, and remained that way during the live shows. Beck's harmonica was a highlight, as was the confident band backing.
2015-2017 post-Morning Phase tours
Beck toured sporadically in 2015, 2016 and 2017. He did do "Country Down" three times in 2015, but all were special occasion-type gigs, and none were during proper tour gigs. The first was on James Corden's late night talk show on March 26.
Then in June he did a solo acoustic show in London, which had the first solo acoustic "Country Down." He did another solo acoustic version in September at a charity gig in Los Angeles.
The song, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has not been played since 2015.