Listen to this track by L.A-based R&B-fixated pop cut-up artist Beck. It’s “Debra”, a Princely track taken from his 1999 funkified, Young Americans-esque Midnite Vultures, a follow-up to the more sombre Mutations album. The song was a stuck in at the end of the record that explored a number of R&B textures through an indie-rock filter in Beck’s attempt to tear down the walls between the rock world and the world of R&B as it stood at the time.
Known for being something of a slacker poster boy when he debuted in the early ’90s, by the end of the decade, Beck had done some serious work in undercutting that original incarnation by cutting follow-up records that seemingly had no connection between each one. If Odelay was a study in cut-and-paste quasi hip hop, then Mutations turned in a more acoustically based acid folk-rock direction. That record was only to be followed by this one, Midnite Vultures, full of samples and squiggly casios, yet also now punctuated with R&B horns and falsetto vocals.
But, what was Beck trying to pull with this song, “Debra”. Was he really serious?
One thing about Beck that ties him to classic artists that came before him is that he is a moving target stylistically. This has produced something of a love-hate dynamic when it’s come to reviews, particularly around this album. If Midnite Vultures did well sales-wise and critically too, it also made it onto the Q Magazine Worst Album Ever list in 2006, despite being given a respectable review on that publication when the record came out. The intent behind it perhaps was difficult to nail down. So, what were critics looking for? What were fans looking for?
Ironically, “Debra” was written for and prepared to be added to Odelay. The song was heavily road-tested, but eventually left off of that album as it didn’t fit tonally. It was too tongue-in-cheek. How do you put over a line like “Lady, step inside my Hyundai” any other way? In many ways, even if it fits in more with the smoove R&B vibe of Midnite Vultures, it still sits outside tonally even there. “Debra” is really more in line with “Loser” in many ways, in that its narrator has surrounded himself in innocent self-mythology, rather than the jaded experience we get on the rest of the album.
Really, for all its cartoon R&B swagger on the surface, this is about working the nerve up to ask a girl out (“I could step to you/With a fresh pack of gum/If somehow I knew you were looking for some”). I think that’s why this song works so well on the record. Even if it’s not really to be taken seriously at face value, that innocence counterbalances the cynicism of tracks like “Get Real Paid”, the dark-side indulgence of “Hollywood Freaks”, and the jaded sexuality of “Sexx Laws”. It plays a role in pacing the album, not just in terms of texture, but also in emotional content, something for which Beck albums are not especially noted. But, even that would change.
By 2001-2002, Beck would discover a new vein of experience that he could not stand outside of artistically, resulting in the most straightforward album of his career in Sea Change. This record would provide something of a document of a break up across several songs, pulling from his real-life experience. The innocence, humour, and tongue-in-cheek charm of a “Debra” would have no place there. And even irony would not get a look in.
The “slacker”, if Beck had actually ever really been one, had grown up.
Check out Beck.com for more information about this mercurial artist.