When Beck was a child, his mother would take him and his brother to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and ask them to choose a favorite and a least favorite piece. “I remember thinking, That’s a lot of pressure,” he said last month, in the atrium of the museum’s Ahmanson Building, a few weeks before the release of his new album, “Hyperspace.” He often picked Millard Sheets’s “Angel’s Flight,” an American oil painting from 1931, as his favorite. It shows two dark-haired women on a small balcony overlooking Bunker Hill, in downtown L.A. “Bunker Hill is the neighborhood in all the old noir films,” Beck said. “It was very picturesque, kind of seedy, post-Victorian. Then the nineteen-sixties came, and the city dynamited it—they just blew the whole hill up.”
Much of the museum’s campus—a cluster of buildings interspersed with open-air courtyards—will be demolished early next year, to make way for a contiguous structure. Beck, who is forty-nine, was feeling vaguely nostalgic about the place. He wanted to take a few photographs of the interior (the mid-century brass clock by the elevators, the pebbled concrete floors) before it disappeared. He paused before a stretch of worn oak panelling. “Lately, I’ve been taking a lot of photos of things like this,” he said. “Saying goodbye to stuff from the past. Making way for the new.”
He pulled out his phone and showed me a black-and-white photo, taken in one of the museum’s courtyards, of his brother, Channing, at the age of five or six, grinning beatifically at the camera, his head slightly cocked. “Look at that little pose he’s doing!” Beck said. He swiped to a photo of himself, at age seven or eight, wearing a homemade Superman cape, with a plastic six-shooter slung low around his waist. He held an Oscar the Grouch puppet. “This pretty much sums it up,” he said, laughing. “Superman sheriff with a Muppet.”
Since 1993, when he released his first album, “Golden Feelings,” on cassette, Beck’s music has varied so deeply in style and tone that it is difficult to tether him to anything other than Los Angeles, where he has lived for nearly all of his life. He has made fourteen albums and won seven Grammys, including one for Album of the Year, in 2014, for “Morning Phase,” a collection of elegant, down-tempo folk songs. It is tempting to divide his music into a handful of categories—mournful folk, bedraggled hip-hop, postmodern sound collage, sexy electro-pop—but the majority of his records fall somewhere in between: Superman sheriff with a Muppet. He can narrate a seduction at a J. C. Penney in a slinking, Prince-like falsetto, as on “Debra,” from 1999’s “Midnite Vultures” (“I pick you up late at night after work / I said, lady, step inside my Hyundai / I’m gonna take you up to Glendale / Gonna take you for a real good meal”), or sing a raw and quietly devastating chorus, as on “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” from 2002’s “Sea Change” (“It’s only lies that I’m living / It’s only tears that I’m crying / It’s only you that I’m losing / Guess I’m doing fine”). Neither mode feels more authentic, though his work does sometimes require listeners to interrogate their own ideas about what they believe to be more profound: ecstasy or ruin.
At LACMA, we visited “Sound Stories,” an exhibition by the artist and composer Christian Marclay, who used the millions of videos publicly shared on Snapchat to build a series of audiovisual installations. Beck was familiar with Marclay’s work. “He’s incredible,” he said. “I remember seeing him on TV. He had done this thing where he had chopped up vinyl records and glued them all together.” Both Beck and Marclay have relied heavily on the recontextualization of samples, and tend to question received norms about how music should be made and distributed. In 1985, Marclay released “Record Without a Cover,” a single-track experimental album that was sold without packaging—any scratches or dents that the record accumulated became part of its sound. The piece suggested that the way most of us had come to consume music, by listening to a fixed recording, was unnecessarily limiting. In 2012, Beck released “Song Reader,” a boxed set that included twenty pieces of sheet music and more than forty illustrations. “Song Reader” uncoupled the idea of music from the idea of recordings—songs could be social, they could be pliable, they could be temporary.
“The Organ,” one of Marclay’s installations, featured a small, spotlit synthesizer in a dark room. Each key cued a different sound and projected a series of vertical images on a screen. Beck patiently tried to teach me how to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” so that we might duet. “You’re getting it,” he said, though I was certainly not getting it. We moved on to “Talk to Me/Sing to Me,” a room with forty-two iPhones suspended from the ceiling. Each phone invited visitors to talk or sing and, in response, receive a blast of video, culled from Snapchat, that in some way mirrored the sound and pose they’d just made. Beck launched into a low, echoing version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” “I just got a guy with his shirt off, talking in Portuguese,” he said.
It is easy to become cynical about the cacophony of modern living, particularly when you are being bathed in human skronk—all the showboating and gasbaggery of social media. Yet Marclay’s work is charming in its playfulness and humor. Beck’s music operates in a similar way. It forces a person to consider that, sometimes, two things are true at the same time. The world is grim and hilarious; the future is bright and unthinkable; you are sad, but you are dancing; you are home, but it is not the same.
Critics tend to take Beck’s darker, singer-songwriter records more seriously, but he has found that capturing true joy is often more difficult. “Wow,” a song from his thirteenth album, “Colors,” is built around a howling synthesizer melody that recalls the Italian composer Ennio Morricone. “Wow!” Beck sings, dragging out the word. “It’s, like, right now.” The production is opulent; the sentiment is dopey. During the first chorus, Beck utters the phrase “Oh, wow!” He sounds so genuinely dazzled that I regularly find myself thinking of this when I need to be reminded of pleasure. “It’s like how people talk about comedy being harder to pull off than drama,” he told me. “How do you make something levitate?”
Beck has spent twenty-six years making music that is complex in form but scrappy in spirit. His work is as likely to be featured in the credits of “The Lego Movie 2” (“Super Cool,” a collaboration with the pop star Robyn and the comedy trio the Lonely Island) as it is to appear on an album of songs inspired by the Alfonso Cuarón film “Roma” (“Tarantula,” an echoing and apprehensive electro-dirge). Though his earliest albums are often described as dilapidated assemblages, he has precise ideas about craft and structure. At times, he has leaned more deeply into funk and R. & B., refining his falsetto and doing the splits onstage. “I want to defy / The logic of all sex laws,” he sang on the single “Sexx Laws.” (The line was inspired by a verse in “Don’t U Know,” an Ol’ Dirty Bastard song.) Like the R. & B. singer Ginuwine, Beck has an uncanny knack for writing lyrics that totter between farcical and titillating. “I’ll feed you fruit that don’t exist,” he sang on “Nicotine & Gravy.”
There were hints of Beck’s scope and ambition on “Mellow Gold,” his first album for a major label, released in 1994. The single “Loser,” which reached No. 10 on the Billboard charts, sounded like a refracted, postmodern version of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Beck had the same scavenging instinct as Dylan, but he was mining from several more decades; besides blues, country, gospel, and folk, he incorporated elements of hip-hop, disco, punk, and electronic music. It’s odd to think that Beck’s first few albums preceded the rise of file sharing, because they so adroitly reflect the thrill and terror of having everything all at once. He is still the musical figure who best anticipated and reflects the reigning aesthetic of our time: abundance.
Beck is five feet eight, slender, and handsome, with delicate features. His eyes are a soft turquoise, and have a deep, searching quality. In conversation, he is funny, kind, and curious. He was born on July 8, 1970, as Bek David Campbell. He and his brother later took their mother’s maiden name, Hansen, and Beck added the “c” to his first name, with the hope that it might help people pronounce it properly. “I still got Brock, Breck, Beak,” he said. “I remember leaving a meeting with some record executives, and one said, ‘Very nice to meet you, Bic.’ ”
His father, David Campbell, is a Los Angeles-based arranger and composer, who started his career playing viola on Carole King’s “Tapestry” and has since worked for the Rolling Stones, Garth Brooks, Metallica, and Adele. He has also arranged the orchestral parts on most of Beck’s records. As a kid, Beck wasn’t entirely aware of what his father did. “He never talked about it,” he said. “Ten or fifteen years ago, I bought a CD of ‘Tapestry,’ and I was reading the credits and saw that my dad was on there. So I was, like, ‘ “Tapestry,” huh?’ It was just another session to him.” Campbell was born in Toronto but moved to L.A. in the early seventies, shortly after joining the Church of Scientology.
In February, Beck filed for divorce from the actress Marissa Ribisi, whom he married in 2004. They have two children. He described the experience as heartbreaking. Ribisi’s family is also active in the Church of Scientology, and the question of Beck’s religious affiliation has preoccupied the music press for years; it is cited in nearly every article written about him. “I’ve so devoted myself to music that it’s kind of my main thing, and religion hasn’t been a central part of my life,” he told me. “There’s a misconception that I’m a Scientologist. There was a period of time, maybe in the early two-thousands, where my family recommended I get some counselling. But, beyond that, it hasn’t been something I’ve actively pursued.”
Though Beck and Ribisi’s marriage is ending, “Hyperspace” doesn’t resemble “Sea Change,” which he wrote in the wake of another arduous breakup. Some of its best songs are buoyant, almost ecstatic. “It’s not really a work of it,” he said of the record’s relationship to his personal life. In general, he is less likely these days to pull material from his own experience. “When I try to shoehorn my life into a song, it gets really ham-fisted,” he said.
Beck’s mother, Bibbe Hansen, is a performance artist and an actress. Her father, Al Hansen, was a prominent member of Fluxus, a community of interdisciplinary artists interested in the sublimity of the creative process. In 1945, Hansen joined the military as a paratrooper; the next year, while stationed in Germany, he pushed a piano off the roof of a building. The piano drop is sometimes referred to as one of the first “happenings”—fleeting, multimedia art performances enacted outside of any institutional context.
“My grandpa was a third-generation New Yorker, and tough as shit,” Beck said. “Once, when I was roughhousing with my best friend, we knocked into one of his really big, important collages. It was a kite-shaped piece, done on wood, and the bottom broke off on my friend’s toe.” His grandfather might have enjoyed that, I told him. “He probably would have,” Beck said. “He was a barroom brawler. He was like nineteen-seventies Jack Nicholson, with a little Bukowski, and some Lou Reed from that interview in ’74 where he has the blond hair.”
Al Hansen often made collages from found detritus, including cigarette butts, centerfolds, and candy wrappers. (His papers contain a letter from Philip Morris, in which the company agrees to “put 3000 Marlboro Cigarettes at your disposal to support your artistic work.”) In 1998, the Santa Monica Museum of Art hosted an exhibition titled “Beck and Al Hansen: Playing with Matches.” The show’s curators found an easy line from Al Hansen’s aesthetic—the juxtaposition of oddball bits, resulting in a provocative and unexpected whole—to Beck’s music. Beck, the keyboardist Roger Manning, and the bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen performed at the exhibit’s opening, débuting a one-off piece called “New Age Evisceration, (Part 1).” Beck introduced it to the crowd by saying, “This will be the longest twenty minutes of your life.” Toward the end of the performance, he attempted to cut his synthesizer in half with a chainsaw. It was, by any measure, a “happening.”
Hansen married the poet Audrey Ostlin, and in 1952 they had Bibbe. Ostlin died suddenly, in Greenwich Village, in 1968. When Bibbe was a teen-ager, Al introduced her to Andy Warhol. She appeared in several of Warhol’s films and two of his “Screen Tests”—the black-and-white portraits that Warhol made in the mid-sixties, in which his subjects sat still in front of a camera for a few minutes. “When I was about fourteen, I discovered the Velvet Underground,” Beck said. “I remember her making a comment like ‘You like that? I used to know those people.’ She started telling this story about how her friend was Warhol’s assistant. He was the guy who used to crack the bullwhip onstage with the band, and she was one of the dancers.”
On his phone, Beck showed me a few photographs of his mother and the model Edie Sedgwick, one of Warhol’s muses. He kept scrolling, stopping on a picture of Bibbe cramming a hamburger into her mouth while Warhol, wearing a dark blazer and sunglasses, coolly flips through a book. Beck beheld it with genuine disbelief: “There are actual pictures of her eating a hamburger next to Warhol.” He laughed. “You can see how hungry she is. She’s just, like, ‘I haven’t eaten in three days.’ If I had seen this when I was a teen-ager, I probably would have died.”
One evening, Beck took me for a drive around central Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. “It’s not a definitive neighborhood, like Hollywood or Silver Lake or Santa Monica. It’s sort of an in-between, forgotten area,” he explained, steering a silver Mercedes through traffic. “Some people call it Pico-Union, other people call it Westlake. I grew up with everyone going, ‘Ugh, L.A.—so cheesy.’ My reality of L.A. was quite different from ‘Baywatch,’ ” he said. “ ‘There’s a beach? What is this beach that they speak of?’ ” He has recently taken to listening to KROQ-HD2—which plays mostly New Wave and punk from the eighties—while cruising around town. “It’s sort of a time portal,” he said. “It’s like opening a secret door. They even have the original d.j.s from when I was a kid.”
His parents got engaged at a diner downtown that is now a MetroPCS store. They had Beck and Channing when they were young. “Kids were kind of invisible when we were growing up,” Beck said. “I pretty much had free rein to do whatever I wanted from a really young age.” Bibbe and David divorced when Beck was in his early teens. Mostly, he lived with his mother and brother in rooming houses or studio apartments. “We had nontraditional parents,” Channing Hansen, who is now a visual artist in L.A., told me. “We didn’t have parents with nine-to-five jobs, or a white picket fence.”
Westlake’s streets used to be lined with stately Victorian houses, but eventually, as Robert Jones wrote in the L.A. Times, in 1997, “the white gentry fled to Encino and Westwood, leaving their ghost buildings behind them.” Beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, there was an influx of drug dealers and gang members, including some fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. Beck was nine years old when the L.A.P.D. began its Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums program, a notoriously savage unit that was shut down in 2000, after officers were alleged to have been involved in gang activity, murders, robberies, evidence planting, and brutality. Cops would occasionally burst into the buildings where Beck was living. Surely, I said, all of this had to have been frightening for him. He shrugged. “It was just the world I knew,” he said.
Beck recalled a time, as a teen-ager, when he attempted to cut through MacArthur Park. He was accosted on all sides by what he thought were zombies. “It was ‘Night of the Living Crackhead,’ ” he said. Things were no less treacherous elsewhere in the area. “The one store that was nearby was the 7-Eleven, but you didn’t go down there, because there would be fourteen-year-olds with steel pipes.”
He is not precious about the old places, but each time we turned the corner on some new, gentrified pocket he appeared briefly befuddled. At the corner of Sixth Street and South La Brea Avenue, we came upon one of those expansive new microbreweries that suffocate some part of the soul. His eyes grew wide. “What the hell is that?” he said. “Look at that thing! That does not belong here.”
We pulled up outside the home where his family lived when he was born: a pinkish, two-story rooming house with a pair of rickety-looking front porches and an iron fence looped shut by several feet of thick chain. “We lived right there in the front room. There were probably ten other people living here,” he said. We drove a few more blocks. “I’m taking you to an area that’s ungentrifiable,” he said. When Beck was older, his mother qualified for Section 8 public housing. Most of the homes on his old block had either been torn down or were boarded up and awaiting demolition. Then we found it: a squat, yellowing bungalow with a broken vacuum cleaner out front. Some roof tiles were missing. “Wow,” he said, shifting the car into park. “It’s the last one standing.” We watched a man come out and walk down the sidewalk. “I guarantee you, in another year and a half, this will be gone.”
The area is one of the most densely populated parts of Los Angeles, and its sheer saturation is evident in Beck’s early lyrics. He tried to learn Spanish when he was younger, but he was clowned on so relentlessly in school that he stopped. “They’d just be crying, in hysterics,” he said. “ ‘Oh, my God, who is this güero?’ So I just shut up.” In 2005, he titled an album “Guero”—Chicano slang for a fair-skinned or light-haired person—and on “Qué Onda Guero” (or, roughly, “What’s up, white boy?”) he evoked his old neighborhood over a loping beat co-produced by the Dust Brothers: “Sleeping on the sidewalk with a Burger King crown / Never wake them up, más cerveza / Till the rooster crows, vatos vergallos,” he sings. The image is neither nonsense nor metaphor. “In the morning, I would be stepping over eight guys who were sleeping on the sidewalk,” he recalled. “And some of them would have on Burger King crowns.”
There are still vestiges of the old streets: barbershops, all-night diners, botanicas. “All the shop signs were hand-painted,” he said. “It was almost like folk art. There would be a painting of a toilet-paper roll. And each store would be at least three things, like: used furniture, dry cleaning, and taxes.”
Beck stopped attending school when it grew too dangerous. “I was a little bit of a target,” he said. He became a fast runner, and learned how to be invisible. “They opened this performing-arts high school downtown, and I applied to get in, and they didn’t accept me.” He paused. “I don’t want to glorify what I did. I think school is really important, and the school where I was probably had amazing teachers.” By then, Beck’s family was living in a three-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot, two-room apartment. “I slept under the dining-room table,” he said. “My brother slept on the couch.”
He started taking the bus downtown each day, to the Central Library. There was an entire room of musical scores, so he taught himself how to read music, sometimes practicing on a piano in the foyer of his apartment building. His tastes were shaped by the city: the ranchera music of his neighborhood, the punk and New Wave he heard on the radio, the hip-hop he encountered on the street. He recalled taking a city bus that went from South Central up Vermont Avenue toward Los Feliz. “I would wait for the bus right here,” he said, pointing toward the corner of Eighth Street and Vermont. “I would get on, and it would be Grandmaster Flash, or whatever the cool rap thing of the moment was, playing on a boom box on the back of the bus.”
He became interested in American vernacular music, particularly country blues, the acoustic songs recorded by indigent Southern musicians, between about 1929 and 1935. “One Foot in the Grave,” Beck’s fourth album, features a cover of Skip James’s “Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader,” one of a handful of songs that James, the spookiest of the Delta-blues legends, recorded in 1931. Beck said, “A friend of one of my mother’s friends was a guitar player and a huge collector of 78-r.p.m. records. I was just a kid, but he would let me come over and bring a blank cassette and record his 78s.” With the man’s help, Beck began learning how to play blues songs by Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell on guitar. “It was pretty obvious that he had musical chops,” Channing said. “When he was eleven or twelve, he was recording professional-sounding music on a four-track.”
In 1986, when Beck was fifteen, the Central Library caught fire. “Probably the saddest day of my childhood was watching the downtown library burn down,” he said. “That was the moment I thought, I have to leave L.A.—I have nothing here. It was the only place that I could go. I didn’t even have money to go to a coffee shop. I was supposed to be in school.”
One afternoon, he was riding the bus up Vermont Avenue when he passed Los Angeles City College. “I didn’t even know what a community college was,” he said. But he saw people walking around carrying books. “It looked cool. It felt safe.” He sneaked into a few classes and eventually befriended the writer Austin Straus, who was teaching a literature course, and his wife, the poet Wanda Coleman. “I showed him some of my writing. He let me come to his classes,” Beck said. “The next year, I got a fake I.D., because you had to be eighteen to go there, and I was maybe fifteen or sixteen. I enrolled, and I was in heaven.”
Eventually, he again grew frustrated by his prospects in Los Angeles. “I felt I just sort of slipped through the cracks of the system,” he said. When he turned eighteen, he saw a Greyhound commercial advertising a cheap fare to anywhere in the United States. It took him three days to get to New York by bus. He had a flat-top Gibson—“a Woody Guthrie kind of guitar”—and about two hundred dollars. He slept in dorm rooms and on friends’ couches. He took I.D. photos at a photomat and worked as an usher at a theatre, and he started playing acoustic songs at clubs downtown. The city was then nurturing a so-called antifolk scene, which sought to dismantle some of the piousness and sanctimony of the folk revival. He tried to rent a small studio apartment, but the landlord disappeared with his security deposit. He stayed for a while in a flophouse in Hell’s Kitchen. “It was basically a room with a bare bulb and a cot,” he said. “I remember the hallways being flooded with water. That was . . . not romantic.”
“I was a street person, basically,” he added. We sat for a moment at a red light. What was it was like, I asked, to be able to offer his kids a very different kind of childhood?
“I feel really proud that they’re able to have this other life,” he said. “It is a miracle to me.”
In 1994, Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth, hosted an episode of MTV’s “120 Minutes,” with Beck as his guest. The show, which aired on Mondays between 1 and 3 A.M., generally featured videos too obscure or perverse to be broadcast at any other time. The interview is less than four minutes, not counting commercial breaks, but it encapsulates the cynicism and theatrical apathy of alternative culture in the nineteen-nineties. I love watching it. Neither man raises his voice—to express agitation would have required admitting to some level of engagement in the conversation—yet a vague contempt for the scenario they’ve found themselves in is palpable.
Moore asks Beck, who was then twenty-three, what it was like to have “Loser” become a smash hit. “It’s like surfing in some oil spillage,” Beck says. “Yeah, it is like that,” Moore replies. Beck pulls out a small device and starts playing what sounds like a melted cassette. “That’s it, man,” Moore says. After returning from a break, Moore asks Beck what his real name is. Beck removes his shoe and chucks it at the wall. “All right,” Moore says.
It was perhaps not wrong to be unserious about MTV. A year before he was a guest on “120 Minutes,” Beck recorded a throaty, jagged folk song titled “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.” “MTV makes me wanna smoke crack / Fall out of a window and never come back,” he sang. Nowadays, it is expected that a celebrity will express only boundless gratitude for his position. But, for the middle-class suburban teen-agers watching MTV in 1994, not giving a shit about anything (or at least pretending not to give a shit about anything) was cool. I’ll cop to some nostalgia for the vibe.
For Beck, though, this was not so much affect as reality. The chorus of “Loser”—“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”—seemed slyly defeatist, a rallying cry for the slacker Zeitgeist, and it briefly turned Beck into a Gen X pinup. But the characterization was fundamentally off. Beck had a different vantage—coming of age as a güero in a largely Latino, low-income neighborhood, in the recesses of a corrupt and violent city—compared with that of most of his peers. Even “Loser” begins with disconnection: “In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey,” he spits.
Beck’s early lyrics were seen as a random, ironic reflection of the MTV aesthetic—the jump cuts, the onslaught of arbitrary images. In truth, he fretted over them, as a poet might fuss with a line. “At the time, I thought that I just hadn’t done it well enough,” he said. “That I had failed. People used to call me this pop-culture junk surfer. I liked visionary language that had a lot of really condensed imagery, where words could spark these almost gemlike refractions. I thought most song lyrics were really throwaway and generic. I wanted to try and populate my lyrics with really alive, original, surprising language. Journalists would be, like, ‘Well, you know, your lyrics don’t really mean anything. You’re just playing with a bunch of random words you’ve thrown together.’ And I’d be, like, Ah, man. I used to torture myself over those words. You know, how do I fit this image that I have in my mind into one line? How do I evoke this whole world in five words?”
One afternoon, Beck invited me to the Capitol Records Building, in Hollywood, a white, thirteen-story circular tower designed to look like records piled on a turntable spindle. We met in Studio B. “Most of the strings for my records were done in here,” he said, gesturing around the room. He tends to edit the orchestral parts of his songs spontaneously. “It’s a lot of simplifying,” he said. “ ‘Oh, that chord’s too thick. That melody sounds like a bad soundtrack.’ ” He finds working with his father to be simple and enjoyable. “There’s no ceremony to it at all,” he said. “It’s ‘Hey, can you do this?’ ‘Yeah, O.K.’ ”
One of Beck’s engineers, David Greenbaum, had brought a heap of hard drives. Greenbaum estimated that they contained hundreds of hours of unreleased material. “It’s kind of endless,” Beck said. He and Greenbaum cued up some mixes: alternate tracks from “Hyperspace,” even more songs inspired by “Roma,” old demos, a series of heavy, spiralling, Kraftwerk-esque songs for an unfinished record that he had thought of titling “Rococo.” The breadth of the material was dizzying. H