Just when you thought the age of irony might be inching toward its protracted end, back comes Beck Hansen, a brainy bear if ever postmodern rock had one, reincarnating himself as a soul man. ''I said, lay-dee, step inside my Hyundai,'' he pleads, adopting a tortured, Prince-like falsetto in ''Debra,'' the slow jam that ends Midnite Vultures. Over a backdrop of stop-and-start horns and old-school Fender Rhodes, the unlikely R&B balladeer is trying to seduce a Penney's clerk. ''I'm going to take you up to Glendale/Gonna take you for a real good meal.'' You don't have to be a Californian to guess that the perfectly pleasant L.A. suburb Beck has picked to consummate this flirtation is neither the city's ultimate date mecca nor a bastion of blackness. Or maybe it's no joke to him: In Beck's world, the funk is wherever you find it.
On 1996's landmark Odelay, he found it in mechanical beats and samples, resulting in the world's most deadpan hip-hop classic. But here, Beck serves as his own producer, leaving the Dust Brothers' brand of assemblage behind (though they're credited on two tracks), replacing sampled riffs with a live band, and delving full on, for half the album, into the organic trappings of '70s soul. The juxtapositions seem more severe this time, since our boy is adopting an inherently emotive type of music as a bed for his usual loquacious non sequiturs. Think ''Positively 4th Street'' recast in the mode of the Stylistics.
Being exactly the 6 billionth white guy to beg, borrow, and steal from black culture, Beck opens himself to charges that he's a rich man's Michael Bolton. And maybe he is, but the album title suggests he's copping from the start. And before we label him hollow man instead of soul man, it may be helpful to take the low road and view Vultures as the last great comedy record of the century. The bones he's pecking atJames Brown's, Prince's, certainly George Clinton'swere never bodies of great gravity to begin with, and his playfulness with the language amplifies theirs, even if he can't help seeming more the Mensa poster boy: It's a stretch, but maybe not an incalculable one, from ''Get on the scene/I'm a sex machine'' to ''Norman Schwarzkopf, something tells me you want to go home!''
Beck's exercises in soul revivalism will get the attention, especially since he's front-loaded the album with 'em. ''Sexx Laws,'' the horn-driven opener, has the most immediate hook, and also grows grating fastest. But Midnite is alight with less retro pleasures, toolike the all-synthetic ''Get Real Paid,'' in which technology transforms Beck's voice into that of a disaffectedly robotic woman; it's that Kraftwerk/Bananarama hookup we'd always hoped for. Later, the album lays off the funk altogether in a terrific succession of space-age, arena-rock songs (''Broken Train,'' ''Milk & Honey,'' ''Pressure Zone''). It's here that you can get past knotty issues of irony and simply marvel at Beck's knack for constantly adding surprising new textures to a tune, almost on a bar-by-bar basis, without ever sounding like he's quite resorted to the kitchen sink.
Far be it from us to look a gift Hansen in the mouth when he's given us the year's most relentless gaslaughing or otherwiseof a party album. But that appreciation doesn't preclude wishing he'd quit with the split-personality thing and mix back in the more reflective qualities of last year's Mutations, a so-called side project whose eerie folkiness had more soulin the really old-school, pre-musical sense of the wordthan these soul homages. He's got too much of it to wind up just being the hardest-smirking man in show business. A-