THE PROBLEM WITH BEING FAMOUS for defying expectations is that eventually you can defy expectations only by not defying expectations. Which may explain why after nine albums and at least four career incarnations--presumptive one-hit wonder, exuberant hip-hop star, inscrutable avant-gardist and heartbroken folkie--Beck has decided it's time to give up the shape shifting. "In the past I spent a lot of time rejecting sounds that were similar to what I'd come up with before just to purposefully try to get away from anything familiar," says Beck, phoning from a Los Angeles recording studio. "But I guess at a certain point you just decide not to second-guess it."
If this sounds remotely defeatist, it must be said that for his as-yet-untitled album, due out in February 2005, Beck is going back not to any single previous sound but to all of them. Assisting him are John King and Mike Simpson, the production duo known as the Dust Brothers, who oversaw Odelay, Beck's 1996 masterpiece (as well as the Beastie Boys' masterpiece Paul's Boutique and Hanson's admittedly less masterly masterpiece MMMBop). "All producers have their own proclivities or different tastes," says Beck. "I've worked with certain people who hate rock music, so anything that's rockish, you don't even bother going there. But the Dust Brothers encourage experimentation, and they definitely encourage a sense of humor."
Laughs were notably absent from Beck's last album, Sea Change, which was full of the kind of beautiful breakup melodies and brutal words normally associated with Gordon Lightfoot and Sylvia Plath. Beck promises a touch of sincerity but adds, "There's definitely a lot more jokes and kicking cardboard boxes and rattling chains and playing slide guitar. This album is full of raggediness." Contributing to the raggediness are song titles like Guero, E-Pro and Brazilica, as well as a guest appearance by Jack White of the White Stripes. Beck appeared in a White Stripes video last year, and White asked if he could return the favor by playing bass on Beck's record--odd considering that the White Stripes are the world's most famous bass-averse band. But then, everyone defies expectations in his own way. --By Josh Tyrangiel