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April 5, 2005

Beck's subtle Guero signals welcome change from desolate Sea Change

There was a time when Beck seemed superhuman. His late '90s albums all appeared to be strange, disfigured creations at first glance, only to reveal profound layers of subtlety and enchanting musical inventiveness on repeated listens. They were the kind of albums you could listen to a hundred times and still appreciate.

However, 2002's Sea Change was the first crack in the armor. The songs were solid and the music exquisitely (over)produced, but for the first time Beck seemed to be as empty and desolate as the dark landscapes his lyrics evoke. You could listen to it a hundred times, but usually because it was great background music. Everything was too obvious and too depressing if you really paid attention.

Beck's newest work, Guero, is being presented as the long-awaited-return-to-good-times album, something of an Odelay 2, right down to the one-word Latin slang title. But while Odelay and Midnite Vultures were exuberantly overstuffed with riffs and hooks from every possible angle of attack, Guero shows Beck in a more refined mood. There are still crazy samples and a plethora of stylistic touches; they're just subtler. This works most of the time but can be also be a drawback.

Beck's minimalism on Guero's more upbeat tracks reveal them as inferior attempts to recapture the sound of Odelay and Midnite Vultures. Both are sufficiently catchy—probably due in large part to the Dust Brothers' production touches—but Beck's delivery sounds disjointed and forced. The flow just isn't up to the standards Beck has created for himself. Placing "E-Pro" as the leadoff track certainly doesn't help matters, as it obviously pales in comparison to "Devil's Haircut," the Odelay opener that "E-Pro" nearly replicates in structure but not effect. Blasting the hell out of it while driving in a car helps, though.

However, Guero's sense of refinement—similar to that displayed on the less diverse Mutations—also serves to highlight the understated charm of the album's more unassuming songs, like "Go It Alone" and "Farewell Ride." On the former, Beck sounds beautifully soulful, singing a simple but mesmerizing bluesy melody over a laid-back bass riff. And that gentle touch of organ in the chorus sounds so cool and funky that it kills me (softly). "Farewell Ride" is a fascinating blues dirge that manages to be obsessed with death without being maudlin.

Later, of course, Beck would embrace cheesy pop and R&B (along with many other styles) as he became something of a human musical blender. But it's hard not to get the sense that much of Guero—despite a few notable exceptions—is Beck coming full circle, back to the world of blues and folk. Only this time, he has the residue of the countless genres and styles he's progressed through on his journey. The songs don't always sound like folk-blues, but they have the same sense of stripped-down desolation and timelessness. After the first three tracks, Guero settles into a subtle groove that is usually preferable to Sea Change's un-grooving misery.

The extent to which Beck is working in a subtler mode is demonstrated in such songs as "Missing" and "Earthquake Weather." While earlier Beck songs such as "Tropicalia" and "Deadweight" illustrated his ability to create credible bossa nova and Latin music, on Guero, these elements are incorporated into the music without dominating the songs and turning them into genre exercises. "Earthquake Weather" is a particularly addicting bossa nova/hip hop concoction with a smooth and summery refrain—about how "the days go slow into a void we filled with death." So much for the crossover potential.

The same effect of catchy, summery music with dark lyrics is found on "Girl," Guero's only straight-ahead pop song. Over acoustic guitar and a very New Wave beat, Beck sings about how the one who steals his eye "spits on the sand where their bones are bleaching" before launching into the sweet harmonies of the simple chorus: "Hey, my summer girl." More preferable is "Qué Ondo Guero," an impressionistic homage to the Latino neighborhood in which Beck grew up. Reminiscent of much of Odelay, the song makes up for its lack of innovation with its flavorful atmosphere and because, as in the pre-Sea Change era, someone shouts out random epithets such as "James Joyce" and "Michael Bolton" for absolutely no reason.

At the heart of Guero—in more than just track sequencing—we find "Broken Drum" and "Scarecrow." "Broken Drum," which would be a better album closer than "Emergency Exit," sounds as wise and quietly majestic as Sea Change tried to be. It fits with many similarly resigned songs from Beck's past, yet surpasses them in its craftsmanship and disarming simplicity.

"Scarecrow" is even more significant. While Beck has always impressed with his ability to bring together diverse musical elements, with "Scarecrow," as in much of Guero, Beck delivers a song that sounds no longer like the impressive musical hybrids of his earlier albums. Instead, "Scarecrow" is a completely natural and organic 21st century blues stomp—complete with the hip-hop rhythm, overdubbed guitar licks, and electronic flourishes that, in today's times, are more authentic as modern folk than those traditionalist poseurs pretend to be.

Odelay 2 this isn't. Instead Guero shows a more mature Beck using various parts of his musical past to create a set of songs that appear somewhat lackluster at first glance but, like classic Beck, slowly reveal the depth below the unassuming surface.