Spirits
By: Beck Hansen
Written by: Beck Hansen

Versions:
  1. Spirits
  2.  
 
Lyrics:
Spirits [Version (a)]:

(from BBC Session version)

Their souls left this place a long time ago
And now there's jungles and other strange arrangements
In the evening, they have swung from glory to depressing
Will there ever be another way around it?
There used to be control, a single solid light
Devoted to perfection, a thin and narrow way
Sifting through the sand with a blistered hand
Waiting to be choked by an angel

One face did appear like a shining window
And I peered in to see what was glowing
There was motion, there was power
It was celibate and sour
An emblem of strength and duration
Well, they've spoken out aloud of a spirit so white
Rooted through the grapevines and the tresses
And they rode their flocks of gold
And their other holy transports
That took them to a heaven that was fierce

There's a man beside a woman
A God of equal footing
Salvation, just another exit
And the mange and the squalor
And the gospels, they all holler
Hollow and they swallow
And down the railways and stations
And their hideous vibrations
Their souls are frayed at the edges
But there's tatters and there's tangles
And there's signs from every angle
You won't know where to go 'til you start moving
You won't know where to go 'til you start moving
 
The Song:

This absolutely lovely folk song has some of Beck's best finger-picking guitar. His youthful voice shines during his KCRW rendition in 1995, and that is by far the definitive version known to fans. The title "Spirits" may not be quite "official." I'm guessing it was given to the song by bootleggers, attached to the song from the first line of the October 24 1994, version. He does not use the phrase in the KCRW version.

The best explanation for "Spirits" comes from Beck himself, as he introduced the song at the Middle East Cafe on October 24 1994.
"I hope you don't mind...I'm gonna play another new one. And this one I wrote after I was reading about the Shakers...this group of religious, sort of, freaks who, like 2 or 300 years ago, they just moved out and started their own city. And the whole premise of their religion was they weren't going to wait to go to heaven 'til they died. They were going to try and create heaven on Earth. I don't think it worked. They all died."
A brief history of the Shakers might be a good place to start. (This comes from some quick Internet surfing, not that I'm an expert.) In the late 1700s, a group of English folk splintered from a Quaker community. They were called the Shaking Quakers because they would commune with spirits of the dead and shaking would occur. One of these members, a young woman, believed she was the Second Coming of Christ. She became the leader of the group, and their beliefs became more and more radical. They moved to New York and struggled greatly. Their beliefs were based around utopian ideals, and men and women were equal, as God was a duality (both male and female). They also suppressed individuality, and as a group became more and more isolationist. For a better description, check the link below (which is where I got all my info).

Beck uses these images and ideas throughout the song, and really does a wonderful job portraying this religion in song. He uses amusement and sadness and wonder and maybe even a little admiration for their attempts to "create heaven on Earth." Certainly this is one of Beck's most intriguing compositions.
 
Live:

Played live 4 times:
Earliest known live version: October 24, 1994
Latest known live version: January 6, 1995

Beck has only done this song on stage. If he has recorded "Spirits," it hasn't been released yet.

The version on October 24 1994 is lively and upbeat, despite the lyrics. Beck strums his guitar fast and adds a lot of harmonica.

The best version is from the BBC Session in November 1994. The song has a slightly more somber feel, as opposed to the bit snappier versions on October 24 1994 and January 6 1995. As opposed to the strummed guitar on October 24, he now plays a finger-picking style--one of his finest talents--and this bluesy addition is perfect for the tune.

Apparently, Beck began "Spirits" at his homecoming show on December 18 1994, but ended up quitting part way through because the audience was talking too much. "Nobody wants to hear it anyway," was his comment.

On January 6 1995, Beck was performing the song for KCRW. It feels a bit more upbeat than the BBC performance, though generally they're the same arrangement (fingerpicking, no harmonica).
 
Notes: