The 4th track on Modern Guilt, Beck has talked about this song as a turning point in his sessions with Danger Mouse, and I assume that is one of the reasons it became the title track for the album:
"I'd recorded about 10 or 15 songs and then I did the song 'Modern Guilt' and I remember my engineer [Drew Brown] and Danger Mouse just lighting up. It was the first time I got a reaction on anything we were working on. It just felt that there was something in that song that rang true for everyone around and what we were doing and it felt like it was definitely a point where it was like, "OK, now we're on to something, this is what it's about.'"
"After that, I started just getting rid of all the songs that sounded like they could be something that could be on Midnite Vultures or Guero, things that were a bit more playful or humorous or however you want to qualify it, and kind of pursuing just the feeling that that song had," he says. "So that's the song that really shaped the record. That was the first time I've ever done that. Where all of a sudden a song came up and it had such a distinctive feeling to it I just went with that."
Listening to the song (and album) with this quote in mind can be revealing. The bouncy '60s beats and infectious electric guitar riffs and "da da da"-type verses are all over Modern Guilt, and it does indeed sound and feel like it followed directly from this track.
Lyrically, the song also contains some powerful words and the philosophical bent may have led to Beck leaning in that direction for the rest of the album too. I I have read various philosophical meanings of the term "modern guilt," but looking solely at Beck's song, there is not much left to wonder. He fairly directly describes the feeling, as he sees it anyway. "Modern guilt" involves feeling shame or guilt for a situation, but the root causes of those feelings are covered up by the very situation.
There's an old Talking Heads song, "Once In A Lifetime," which famously has the lines "You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife / You may ask yourself 'How did I get here?'" Again, your situation can eventually lead to that moment of realization where you "don't know what you've done," as Beck sings it.
A similar moment of realization begins Beck's song: the narrator is in familiar settings, feeling uptight, lost. It's an odd situation to feel lost in familiar settings, and that discomfort lingers the whole song.
And while I'm bringing up random song connections, recall "Guess I'm Doing Fine" on Sea Change:
I press my face up to the window
To see how warm it is inside
I see the things that I've been missing
Missing all this time
which definitely reminds me of
Standing outside the glass on the sidewalk
These people talk about impossible things
And I'm falling out of the conversation
And I'm a pawn piece in a human shield
That window/glass dividing the narrator from life is such a simple and amazing metaphor, no? In both songs, the glass symbolizes a disconnect the narrator feels from the rest of the world.
Connecting this feeling to Sea Change might add some context. This disconnection may be a bit of a continuity, as opposed to two similar feelings at different times. The lonesome longing that someone sometimes feels (as in Sea Change) will extend, with enough time, into a greater existential crises (Modern Guilt): "falling out of the conversation / a pawn piece in a human shield."
There is a lot on the Modern Guilt album about searching for a bed, a home, somewhere to rest, to warm your bones. The beginning of this emotion is described in "Modern Guilt," which, as Beck said, was just the beginning of what he would look at throughout the entire album.
As quoted above, Beck has described "Modern Guilt" as a song that really jumped out immediately, and to that end, it meant a lot to him. Perhaps because of this, Beck has played the song quite regularly since he started touring behind Modern Guilt in 2008 until about 2015, when it slowly drifted out of the sets.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tours
Beck played 51 concerts in 2008-2009, and "Modern Guilt" was at 37 of them. There is video of the live debut, which while Beck forgets some of the words, they play more or less identically to the record.
The song would continue this way more or less through the Modern Guilt tour.
After the main part of the tour ended in November 2018, Beck stopped in to KCRW to play a few songs. He was with his guitarist and bassist and they did acoustic versions of a few songs, including "Modern Guilt." It is lovely:
2011-2013 pre-Morning Phase tours
After some time off the road, Beck went back out in 2012 and 2013 for some short touring. There were 15 shows in 2012, and "Modern Guilt" was played at 13 of them. The next year was similar: of around 25 shows, "Modern Guilt" was at 16 of them. Instead of the sort of leisurely stroll of the record, this band (JMJ/Smokey/Roger/Joey) seem to give the song a bit more of a drive, pushing it a bit faster than the previous group. The end of the song is slightly different: instead of a long "da da da" outro, Beck steps aside and the band just
In July 2013, Beck did a couple of minimal acoustic shows, and again performed a slimmed down "Modern Guilt" with just a bassist and pianist.
Then in August 2013, the band started to use the old '80s new wave song "Tainted Love" as a sort of intro medley for "Modern Guilt." They did it this way for the remainder of shows they played that year (maybe around 10 times).
Here is a good example of the "Tainted Love"/"Modern Guilt" medley... though it is perhaps the time Beck sang the most of "Tainted Love":
2014 Morning Phase tour
Beck played "Modern Guilt" somewhat rarely in 2014, at 15 of his 57 shows. 10 of those versions came in a 15-show span as well, outside of that, the song was even rarer. They did a solid version of the song, following the path of the album's arrangement. The ending jam was pretty good though, and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. always took lead and dropped in a piano solo. Also, Beck always sang the song particularly well.
2015-2016 post-Morning Phase tours
"Modern Guilt" only showed up 3 times in 2015 (there were 30 shows that year); all were in the week of shows they did in May. Similarly, 2016 saw around 32 shows, and "Modern Guilt" dropped in there just 6 times (all with new bassist Dwayne Moore). The ending of the song seems to be getting more and more dramatic, peaking here:
They only played the song a couple more times after that, however. The song was not played at all in 2017.