By: Eric Greenwood
After a decade of wringing his junk culture-soaked sponge on the masses by way of the hipster elite, Beck has decided to step back and make sure that we understand what he's been about all along. Guero follows Beck's achingly beautiful break-up record, 2002's Sea Change, with a return to the mish-mash sound collage days of his breakthrough, Odelay. The Dust Brothers help Beck recapture that seamless melding of soul, funk, rap, video game noises, hand claps, vocoder nonsense, and rhymes about melting Popsicles and raunchy rent-a-cops. At first it sounds like Beck might be resting on his laurels a bit, but even though Guero sounds familiar sonically, it still pushes Beck further into a league that he all but owns.
Odelay is the obvious reference point on several levels. Guero's lead single and opener, "E-Pro" is a brilliantly mutated and rocking version of Odelay's "Devil's Haircut", the sampling of the Beastie Boys' "So Whatcha Want" notwithstanding. Beck sounds more refined in his skills both as a songwriter and as a sound collector here. Calling Guero a more mature Odelay sounds clunky, and it's overly simplistic. Beck is just better at a game he devised. It's unfair to write Guero off simply because it doesn't break new musical ground for someone who has practically invented his own indescribable genre. But, on the other hand, it is fair to gripe that Guero covers much of what we already know because it does.
"Que Onda Guero" is a microcosm of Beck's melting pot sound. His white boy rapping never sounds insincere, even when it's random or silly. The song sounds like Beck free styling over a boombox he's holding on his shoulder as he walks down a filthy street in Mexico. Its melody is subversive; the sample repeats in your head and you're ready to walk beside him in a yellow Adidas sweatsuit and some over-sized amber aviators within seconds. The IBM Commodore 64 blips that open "Girl" are immediate and infectious and by the time Beck swoops in with his driving vocal line, you're wet and ready. It might even be Beck's finest pop song.
The aching in Beck's voice makes his good songs great, and "Missing" is a perfect example. It has the faux-Caribbean sway of "Tropicalia" with a haunting and sweeping keyboard line. Beck draws decisive lines between his ironic cluster fuck mish-mashes and his ballads, and there's no mistaking the sincerity of "Missing": "I prayed heaven today/Would bring its hammer down on me/And pound you out of my head/I can’t think with you in it." It's more sophisticated musically than anything on Odelay yet just as successfully experimental, which accurately characterizes the overall relationship of this album to Odelay and even to Beck's entire cannon.
Since the music doesn't sound out of character for Beck, it's easy to gloss over the nuances of Guero as a casual listener deciding whether or not to make a purchase. The Dust Brothers' production fuses this patchwork of diverging sounds with calculated aplomb. Even percussive throwaways like "Black Tambourine" carry artistic merit on a sonic level thanks to such detailed engineering. Beck may take some flack for returning to The Dust Brothers, as it might be construed as some sort of attempt to reclaim a certain level of commercial appeal, but there's not a trace of disingenuousness anywhere to be found on Guero.
No, Guero's not as wacky or random as Odelay, but it's not supposed to be. That would be redundant. Beck's got more depth now than he did a decade ago, as evidenced by both Mutations and Sea Change. It's not that he's lost his edge; he just chooses his battles more carefully now. His ideas are more fully formed and his songwriting sustains without the off the wall kitsch and showiness to prop it all up. I already can't stop listening to Guero, and it takes a stronger hold every time. I know it will be in my top five of the year. Few records can seep into my head so effortlessly, but Beck's always do.