When the Canadian wildfires were forcing many of us to rally our best indoorsy selves, it turned out Beck, who had not dropped an album since Hyperspace, in 2019, gave us the apropos soundtrack for this climate-change summer. Summer songs are usually danceable bangers—think Outkast’s “Hey Ya!,” from the aughts—but just in time for the A.Q.I. shut-in was Beck’s mournful, passionate, and desperate “Thinking About You.” It is a gem about love lost, and it sounds like it’s always been here, from an artist that sounds like right now, or right anon.
Back in the 90s, in “Static,” Beck had already told us, “It’s a perfect day to lock yourself inside.” That was 1998, many climate cycles and life crises ago. And there was that voice, one that rapped, screamed, howled, and brooded for us, one that stayed current with studio wizardry while stretching way back to Jobim, Hank Williams, Skip James, and even a sample of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” itself a fragment. In March—did we really reach this milestone?—it was 30 years since Beck, in the self-laceration anthem “Loser,” announced, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Accolades and Grammys followed.
No artist since Elvis Costello has been such a perfect gift for music critics to unwrap. As Beck unfolded, a pattern emerged. One album would have jokes, pastiche, bricolage. Another would be forlorn, mournful, filled with acoustic regret and despair that bounced against each other like racquetballs in one’s mood spectrum. Midnite Vultures (1999) and Colors (2017) are for the party; Sea Change (2002) and Morning Phase (2014) are for the morning after. A video for “Thinking About You,” directed by Beck himself, is the latter.
In funereal black and white, the video sees our loser of eternal sorrows—lonely, walking in the L.A. rain, first with an umbrella, then getting soaked—juxtaposed with Alison Brie as the one who got away. She is waking up, reading, taking a bath, while Beck is alone and forsaken, having no fun at a bar, a tear in his beer. He remembers waking up next to her, but that is long gone. “Wanna believe in something / It don’t even have to be true / Just thinking about you.” The desperation is palpable, dark, and haunting, and you want to press Play again.
Last year, Beck was nominated for a Grammy for his cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man.” He’s 53—a long way to go till old-man status, even though he is almost 30 years older than Young was when he wrote it. He’s in a Beck-size bardo, and those of us who have been following the Beck Show for these unforgiving decades still have a new chapter ahead. If your pulmonary health permits, Beck is on the road with Phoenix for 11 more performances. Venture out. The loser of “Loser” puts on a hell of a show.
Beck and Phoenix’s Summer Odyssey tour travels around the United States through September 10. Check out AIR MAIL’s Arts Intel Report, our newly-revamped research tool for what to do and where and when to do it
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here