Beck Hansen is a beautiful man. His disarming boyish looks defy his actual age (it's hard to believe that he is indeed 34). His impossibly innocent eyes communicate that he is beyond record sales, marketing campaigns, or anything that could potentially taint his artistic pureness. Beck is an anomaly in the record industry; He constructs a pastiche of randomness and wins a Grammy for it (Odelay). Thereafter, he records a follow-up of retro-mutant psychedelica and gets raves reviews (the appropriately entitled Mutations). Then–the nerve!–he makes a record that is so screamingly ironic that surely it has to be sincere, a dance party jam embossed in hot pink pleather that sounds like the king to Prince's prince (Midnite Vultures). What could Beck possibly do next after releasing a make-out album for freaky robots from the future? Naturally, make an acoustic document of pain so stark and depressing that fans could only ask, hey, dude, are you, like, okay (Sea Change)?
Beck is the doe-eyed wunderkind that could defy and violate any genre, claiming it as his own. But more incredibly, Beck is consistantly prolific and surprising, a rock historian, a musical tour guide, a thief robbing the vaults of the past, combining virtually everything he can find into a vibrant collage. So then the only question we have left to ask is, how is Guero, Beck's newest, just a good album?
At the end of the second track "Que Onda Guero," a blip-encrusted rap/mariachi hybrid, Beck free flows his random verbiage over car horns and Mexican conversational samples. At the end of the song, one of the Mexican characters name-checks mullets and Yanni–it's an embarrassing moment for Beck, one that would appeal to the posing vintage-miners in an Urban Outfitters (akin to the time when Eminem released a song almost a year too late picking on Moby and NSYNC). Surely someone with this much relevance and street-cred could find someone more interesting to reference. We loved Beck because he was always laughing at us, not laughing with us. The problem seems that with Guero, we're in on the joke, while in the past, we listened and smiled politely because it wouldn't be until months later that we would understand the punchline.
Guero is not a bad album. It's a good album. It's the "comeback" Beck was meant to make. Heck, it's the comeback we expected Beck to make.
The opener, "E-Pro," grooves and even comes close to annihilating in the same way the ferocious "The New Pollution" sizzled our ears (never mind that "Send A Message To Her" opens exactly like "Devil's Haircut"). "Girl,' a bouncy, summer soundtrack inevitability shines like an out take from Mutations. "Hell Yes" would fit in seamlessly into Midnite Vultures and "Broken Drum," with its echoey somberness, carries the same burden and toil found throughout Sea Change. In fact, the eclectic nature of Guero plays like a greatest hits album of unfinished ideas for songs left over from previous albums. Replicas of vibes and chords and beats and sounds from the spider-webbed attic of Hansen's mind. The perennial loser's new album isn't where it's at. It's where it's been.
The rock critic cliché would be to dismiss Guero as a bump on the road that is Beck's career or to feign over it with such enthusiasm that we're left to wonder if Interscope is purchasing a ton of ad space in said rock critic's magazine. Oddly enough, there is an extreme polar reaction to the album–yay or yawn. Never in-between.
It's undeniable that Beck is a visionary and an excellent artist. He has proved that time and time again with his prolific output of genre-straddling. Guero will make many best-of-the-year lists because in the grand scope of artistry, he is a fascinating character. While Hansen’s latest offering does nothing to enforce that, it never contradicts it.
Most tellingly, on Guero's seventh song "Hell Yes," Christina Ricci is sampled as a Japanese waitress saying "please enjoy," sounding like a request made more than a demand. The two words could effectively sum up the listening experience; While in the past, we were compelled to enjoy Beck's music. The plea never had to be made.
Although this time around, with Guero, maybe we need to be asked nicely.
To read more from Arye Dworken, check out his new personal website www.bringbacksincerity.com