The 4th track on Modern Guilt
, Beck has talked about this song as a turning point in his sessions with Danger Mouse, and I assume that is why it became the title track for the album:
"I'd recorded about 10 or 15 songs and then I did the song 'Modern Guilt' and I remember my engineer [Drew Brown] and Danger Mouse just lighting up. It was the first time I got a reaction on anything we were working on. It just felt that there was something in that song that rang true for everyone around and what we were doing and it felt like it was definitely a point where it was like, "OK, now we're on to something, this is what it's about.'"
"After that, I started just getting rid of all the songs that sounded like they could be something that could be on Midnite Vultures or Guero, things that were a bit more playful or humourous or however you want to qualify it, and kind of pursuing just the feeling that that song had," he says. "So that's the song that really shaped the record. That was the first time I've ever done that. Where all of a sudden a song came up and it had such a distinctive feeling to it I just went with that."
Listening to the song (and album) with this quote in mind can be revealing. The bouncy '60s beats and infectious electric guitar riffs and "da da da"-type verses are all over Modern Guilt
, and it sounds like it followed directly from this track.
The song also contains some powerful words. I've read various philosophical meanings of the term "modern guilt," but looking solely at Beck's song, there is not much left to wonder. He fairly directly describes the feeling, as he sees it anyway. "Modern guilt" involves feelings of shame or guilt, but the root causes of those feelings are covered up by your situation.
There's an old Talking Heads song, "Once In A Lifetime," which famously has some lines "You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife / You may ask yourself 'How did I get here?'" Again, your situation can lead to that moment of realization where you "don't know what you've done."
A similar moment of realization begins Beck's song: the narrator is in familiar settings, feeling uptight, lost. It's an odd situation to feel lost in familiar settings, and that discomfort lingers the whole song.
And while I'm bringing up random song connections, recall "Guess I'm Doing Fine" on Sea Change
I press my face up to the window
To see how warm it is inside
I see the things that I've been missing
Missing all this time
which definitely reminds me of
Standing outside the glass on the sidewalk
These people talk about impossible things
And I'm falling out of the conversation
And I'm a pawn piece in a human shield
That window/glass dividing the narrator from life is such a simple and amazing metaphor, no? In both cases, the glass symbolizes a disconnect the narrator feels from the rest of the world.
I flipflop here, on the connection between Sea Change
and Modern Guilt
. There are a couple of possibilities. Obviously, Sea Change
is an album of loss; Modern Guilt
could be about that realization that even though you have found "the things that I've been missing," you still might feel disconnected.
But perhaps this feeling is more of a continuity, as opposed to two similar feelings at different times. The lonesome longing one sometimes feels (Sea Change
) will extend, with enough time, into a greater existential crises (Modern Guilt): "falling out of the conversation / a pawn piece in a human shield."
There is a lot on the Modern Guilt album about searching for a bed, a home, somewhere to rest, to warm your bones. The beginning of this emotion is described in "Modern Guilt," which, as Beck said, was just the beginning of what he would look at throughout the entire album.