One Foot in the Grave


One of two Mellow Gold-adjacent records Beck released through an indie in ’94 along with Stereopathetic Soulmanure, this entry on K Records is the third album he released in the span of five months — and far and away the quietest and most contemplative. The most serious, too, the closest he’d get to a truly irony-free listening experience until Sea Change eight years later. (Even the orphaned title track was a little too silly for it, and wound up on Soulmanure instead.) If Soulmanure and some of his Mellow Gold deep cuts leaned into his background making sardonic, experimental anti-folk, One Foot in the Grave is where he ditches the anti- and finds himself settling in nicely, even if it’s the kind of settling in that’s often a little closer to Beat Happening’s lo-fi indie pop than anything Alan Lomax might recognize. (Calvin Johnson himself produced it, and his baritone drone of a voice shows up to harmonize a couple times.) The prize gem here is “Asshole,” a wounded heartbreak song that plays at snark with its casual vulgarity (“she’ll do anything to make you feel like an asshole”) but sticks with you because it’s also instilled with a remarkable depth of vulnerability (“she dangles carrots/makes you feel embarrassed/to be the fool you know you are”). That’s not the only bummer jam that resonates: legend has it that it took a lot of coaxing on Johnson’s part to get the Carter Family “Lover’s Lane” rewrite “Girl Dreams” out of him, but Beck instills its almost childlike naivete with enough exhausted wistfulness to keep it from collapsing into twee. And in a different world where Beck’s ceiling of renown was closer to Pavement than Pharrell, his indie-rock excursions here would feel like definitive statements. That approach gets good-naturedly dizzy off the stoned, nowhere-fast daze of “Outcome” and finds pretty repose in the quiet intricacy of “Forcefield,” a duet with Lync/Love As Laughter’s Sam Jayne that gives the impression Beck would be just at home in Olympia as he found himself in Los Angeles. Most importantly, One Foot in the Grave is also leavened with some of his most earnest engagements with folk and Delta blues, from his own compositions (gospel poetry “I’ve Seen the Land Beyond”; wandering-spirit ramble “Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods”) to the opening cover of Skip James’ “He’s a Mighty Good Leader” that he delivers with the aim of doing justice to its deep-time spirituality. This commitment makes some of his lyrics that might otherwise scan as borderline anti-folk parodic — “get yourself a pistol/get yourself a dog/stay up all night gettin’ drunk/sleepin’ on a hollow log” — come across like they’ve actually hit on something pure and true in its essence. Seems this SoCal art kid had sincere roots lingering somewhere inside him after all.

Nate Patrin