By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
It's a long sailboat ride from the post-breakup resignation of Sea Change, Beck's last album, to the nonchalant confidence of Guero. Then again, it was a long way from the Vegas-ready white-fonk of Midnite Vultures to Sea Change--previously, Beck's catalogue tended to zigzag between Prince-loving dance tracks and acoustic folk for each release. But posse'd up with Guero's fuzzbox guitar symphonies, demon tambourines, and choruses of Kewpie-doll backup singers, Beck's integrated these identities--and dude's got his mojo back. His voice is softened from the wear of adulthood (well, he's 34, anyway). But he's still singing with that wry morbidity and pre-apocalyptic irony that longtime denizens of Los Angeles seem particularly susceptible to, from Jim Morrison to Black Flag to the Doom Generation Beck himself helped define with his anthemic "Loser."
On "Earthquake Weather," Beck sounds a slow foghorn as the earth prepares to swallow him whole. The song would seem to evoke the immediacy of living--metaphorically or literally--on the San Andreas Fault. But "immediacy" isn't quite it, since Beck never sounds overexcited, to put it mildly. His deadpan delivery is one thing that keeps his junkyard decoupage from turning into kitsch. So the boyish chorus of "Earthquake," meted out economically and overlaid by field samples, depicts the looming drama that is plate tectonics--a creepiness shared by "Girl," with its kelpy landscape and doe-eyed crooning. This is Beck's California, beautiful and sunny and glowing with the dewy dreams of Tropicalia. But, to draw on Joan Didion's post-'60s essays on the Golden State, you sense that the Manson Family never stops lurking in Beck's subconscious.
Guero resurrects the Dust Brothers, who are not as outwardly doomy as Our Hero, but who balance his languidness with perfectionism. Guero is their first album-long collaboration with Beck since his transformation from cheeky postmodern, anthem-writing wonder boy to splits-executing, love-lamenting, pop-cult commentator, and all said, it's a fiesta welcoming Beck's return to O.G. form. The Dust Brothers are the fellows who dug Odelay's nooks and crannies, piled its samples, and scratched up its tape to help define Beck as the dumpster-diving collage-artist we knew and loved in '96. A decade later, they bestow the muy gorgeous Guero with a whole city of sounds meant to envelop and take over. The bonus CD is accompanied by a special surround-sound version, but the meticulously placed samples and snips of maracas, violins, and samples of erhu (a Chinese fiddle used on the death-wish track "Missing") bust through varying corners of the headphones, too. It feels magical and three-dimensional.
Beck is still a better iconoclastic, Fluxus-spawned songwriter than he is a rapper. And better at making a folk song sound funky than a funk song sound totally serious. But Guero is a culmination of the Beck package: patron of dreamy sample parfaits; spokesman for macabre beach bums; freewheeling singer with ties to deep emotion; ambassador to the best creativity capitalism can foster. This last piece is key. Beck has already dropped dough on three seriously cool animated videos: one for the funky anthem "E-Pro," directed by Shynola, who's helping with graphics for the film version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; another for the groovy little jam "Black Tambourine"; and a third for "Hell Yes" as remixed on an 8-bit computer, the machine used to score video games in the Commodore 64/Nintendo days. Give this guy more money! He blows it all on art!
On Guero, Beck's easy-breezy, slack-lipped, boy-next-door-with-milk delivery streamlines the Beck of yesteryear (a couch-surfing folk-prankster) and Beck '05 (a dude with a house, a wife, and a kid), distilling him into his best, fullest self. And he's flashing his adulthood. Over the sparse funk of "Hell Yes," he raps about paranoia and peace-ing out on misanthropy ("Make your dreams out of papier-mâché/Cliché wasted/hate taste-tested"), but sounds uncommitted. He's had it with pop culture, it seems, yet he announces his resignation by slangin' "I'm switchin' my plates," a phrase only pop-cult addicts are aware of. It's a half-assed threat from a smart man who tries hard to convince us he's a creative underachiever.
Which fits his pattern. It's mischief aplenty with this guy, and it's good to know he's still kicking it with the devil. Beck the Younger was preoccupied with hoodwinking Lucifer's cooking habits (remember "Satan Gave Me a Taco"?), but now he's fully eyeballing the man: "I don't see the face of kindness...I don't smell the morning roses/all I see is two white horses in a line," he sings on "Farewell Ride," a funeral dirge underscored by dusty, echoing tambourines. "Scarecrow," a track about the devil trying to inhabit his mind, takes things a step further. But Beck Hansen, too, has a generous heart, as we are reminded by the cavernous piano lines that drift in and out of "Broken Drum." "One by one, we'll shoot our guns/We'll have fun, don't ever doubt it," he promises, and of course he's right. Beck defined a whole cadre of disaffected whitefolx with the ironic proclamation "Soy un perdedor." Guero reiterates his position as an outsider--guero means "whiteboy" en español--but again, his cynicism with a smile just might be the sentiment of a generation.