Beck: "Sound and Vision"

Single (2013)

By Jonathan Wroble | 15 February 2013

If you were watching other things last Sunday, like LL Cool J neutering the Grammys or Lena Dunham throwing her uncovered body around an attractive man’s brownstone, you likely missed Beck’s cover of “Sound and Vision,” a nine-minute orgy of concept and bombast layered in the competing nuances of 157 backing musicians—strings, brass, a yodeler, Chinese percussionists, a gospel choir—and performed while rotating before an audience on floor cushions in the pure bohemia of the moment. It was more than a song, more of an Event, described in the days prior as a “living work of art,” “extremely special,” “the canvas of all music out there,” “sponsored by Lincoln Motor Company,” and, my personal favorite, “something that no one’s ever done before.”

By nature of it being a cover, of course, someone has done this before, and few would be so brave as to fuck with Bowie’s synth-pop classic—the default single from his arguable opus Low (1977), no less. “Sound and Vision” is an ode to getting clean, in Bowie’s case a self-imposed exile to Berlin, and it operates on an indelible guitar hook, Brian Eno’s minimal soundscape, and Bowie’s calm, sobered voice. At least thematically, it doesn’t quite lend itself to glamour, indulgence, and excess—all the things Beck decided to wash it in, the same things Bowie wrote about avoiding. (For extra irony, it was staged in LA, the coke-engulfed city Bowie fled for his health.) In a sense it’s less a cover than a tribute, and less pure homage than marketing ploy; apparently you can manipulate the camera angle and audio when viewing online, meanwhile being convinced via peripheral ads that you absolutely need a new car.

That’s not knocking Beck for getting someone to subsidize his vision, which all in all comes off as pretty inspiring—well shy of a Brian Wilson mad conductor cartoon, still making inventive use of each player in the band. The first eighty seconds are mostly noise, each instrument section announcing its presence by playing the same note, after which Beck leads a call-and-response with his guitar. The otherworldly “Sound and Vision” riff hits two-and-a-half minutes in, and what follows is best described as a tour through Beck’s own chameleonic career: a junky hip-hop section that alludes to his rascal youth; an acoustic-and-marimba troubadour breakdown that beckons to Mutations (1998), announced by an ankle-breaking horn fill, brief but plastic and funky, that embodies Midnite Vultures (1999); a gorgeous, twinkling Sea Change (2002) interlude at the five-and-a-half minute mark; and lastly, a winning final section that totally reinvents the song—new chords, new urgency—and approximates the anthemic retro-pop heard on Modern Guilt (2008). The thesis of Beck’s just-released Song Reader, a collection of sheet music that contends the true beauty of a song is in its interpretation, rings unequivocally true in the spectacle of this performance. There are certainly warts—it can’t be easy rendering a song while seated in a circle, as these musicians are—but the piece is more fascinating for them.

One can easily understand why Bowie gave Beck the green light on this, and good thing they settled on “Sound and Vision”; the relative simplicity of the song makes it deceptively malleable and consistently recognizable, even filtered through so many instruments, vocalists, and ideas. For a guy who’s bragged of getting by with a couple turntables and a mic, Beck proves mightily effective at the helm of 157 moving parts.