BY MARK GUARINO
Beck took off his lavender floppy hat and serenaded the crowd just once Thursday, the first of two sold-out nights at the Aragon. Affecting the seductive gait of a ranchero singer, he crooned in a bit in Spanish (on the song "Que Onda Guero"), then plopped the hat back on his head under which he hid for the rest of the night.
Hide under a hat, speed through the songs, barely recognize the audience -- Bob Dylan did this once, at a time in his career he later said he was creatively lost and bored with himself, night after night. The same might be suspected of Beck Hansen, the 38-year-old chameleon whose shape-shifting body of work has successively crafted dark themes with disparate pop elements such as folk, blues, hip-hop, arena rock and ranchero.
At the Aragon however, he made the choice to destroy all expectations and flog his songs until there was blood. The four musicians backing him up played as if set on overkill: Loud, messy punk versions of songs including "Girl," "Loser" and "Timebomb" were pushed much further than their recorded counterparts. Faster, fused with a distorted bottom, and played with a profound urgency to race back to the hotel room to see who won the vice presidential debate, the songs were stripped of their whimsy and instead became gnarly and mean.
Considering the dark places his songs have gone these past few years, Beck as punk rocker at first seemed a natural fit. "Girl," sung from the perspective of a stalker, lost its sunny Beach Boys glare and, in this version, became raw and ugly. On "I Think I'm in Love," a love song overstocked with anxiety, the band blasted the chorus with maximum effort so the title sentiment now sounded like torture.
This didn't sustain a 90-minute, 21-song show. Despite two slower songs from his acoustic "Sea Change" album ("The Golden Age," "Lost Cause"), the fiercer treatment made the impeccably crafted songs stiffen, their former bounce and rhythmic interplay completely washed out.
Beck also toned down his theatrical instincts, an integral component of his past tours. The only break from routine was when his band abandoned their instruments to stand together wearing headset microphones and holding handheld electronic noise pads. The songs -- "Hell Yes" and "Black Tambourine" -- didn't benefit from the gimmick as the visual looked awkward, their tedium was apparent and Beck's headset suffered an electrical short.
The black-lit moods synced only with a few new songs from "Modern Guilt" (DGC), his eighth album. "Chemtrails," the night's highlight, benefited from the sobering approach, as its flinty bass and punishing drum fills enhanced Beck's ethereal, stoner vocals.
"So many people / where do they go?" Beck sang. They were still there and he was lucky.
Beck, with MGMT opening, performs again at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Aragon Ballroom. Tickets are $40; call (312) 559-1212.
Mark Guarino is a Chicago freelance writer and critic.