On his gleefully bizarro 1994 breakout single ''Loser,'' a then-24-year-old Beck Hansen described time as ''a piece of wax fallin' on a termite/Who's chokin' on the splinters.'' Lines like that would establish the boho-hobo rocker as a sort of Salvador Dalí of sound, a man for whom the sensical and banal were strictly anathema. Today, even as a married father nearing 40, he has managed to remain as musically idiosyncratic as ever. But on Modern Guilt, a simmering cauldron of postmillennial tension helmed by musician/DJ/producer Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), time is no longer an abstract for silly wordplay; it's a remorseless force of nature. ''I've been walking on these streets so long,'' Beck intones hoarsely on the rhythmic, loping ''Volcano.'' ''I don't know where they're going to lead anymore/But I think I must have seen a ghost/I don't know if it's my illusions that keep me alive.'' Elsewhere, he sings of ''creatures of woe,'' ''bottomless pits,'' a sea ''swallowed by evil.'' This is way past Bummerville; he's clearly taken a sharp right at Apocalypse Heights.
Of course, it's hardly the first time we've seen Serious Beck. He appeared most notably on 2002's Sea Change, an unapologetically grim collection of austere breakup ballads. Still, Guilt's darkness is far more diffuse and generalized, and for that Burton turns out to be a particularly apt partner in crime. The pair share a long-held love of left-field production and dusty-record-bin diving, habits excellently showcased on the junkyard jangle and beachy harmonies of opener ''Orphans,'' the finger-snap funk of ''Youthless,'' and the mod garage frug of ''Gamma Ray.'' (Cat Power is credited with guest vocals on both ''Orphans'' and ''Walls,'' though she is one quiet kitty; her contributions are barely audible.)
Throughout, the common thread of Burton's dense, analog-pastiche treatments brings, if not exactly levity, a sort of thoughtfulness and texture that temper the consistently bleak subject matter. ''Chemtrails,'' the prettily trippy first single, flirts with Aquarian Age rapture even as the flowers woven into the singer's golden locks wilt in the harsh light of a damaged ozone layer (''That's where we'll be when we die in the slipstream/We'll climb in a hole in the sky''). And when Beck sings, as he does on the thumping, percussive ''Soul of a Man,'' ''Beat my bones against the wall/Staring down an empty hall/Deep down in a hollow log/Coming home like a letter bomb,'' Burton makes the ultimate endgame sound like a party you'd still want to be invited to one that even Beck might enjoy, despite himself. B+
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