e thought we knew you, Beck. And then you showed up moaning over dark satin strings and crisp Godrich production. Yes, you’d lost your love, and you needed to tell us about it, or relieve yourself of it all through audio. But you were our chosen master of ceremony, the pastiche grifter who dug through all our pop lore and held it up in the crooked rainy mania of the modern. We counted on you to put the beat down first and foremost, to swing and hum, and here you were stung and broken. Against my own wishes, I now admit: it was a genius touch. The chameleonic shape-shifter, you’d entered a place few believed you’d ever try to inhabit. You’d side-swiped us all in the dark and come out mourning in the light. You just couldn’t sit still.
But now you’ve moved back home. As the decade which proclaimed you king of all the strut and shrift of post-modern beat collectives passed, you found something else to bide your time in the post-aught era. Now, you’re Thomas Wolfe, all set to return to the homeland again, and we’re glad to have you back. The more things change, you know? But instead of your preferred transformation between albums, you’ve chosen with Guero to shed your skin anew with every few songs. You’ve brought the Dust Brothers back for help with the production, as well as Tony Hoffer. And as a result, you transition through every period of your career, offering us an aged hipster’s collage of your musical life. No best-of forthcoming, perhaps. Guero will stand in its stead.
After the relative force-feeding of singles that begins the album—the whiskered stomp and addictive “Na-na-nas” of “E Pro” and the Odelay-inspired Hispanic-hop of the titular “Que Onda Guero,” with its cramped sax sampling—Guero begins to sway like a proper record. Where the first few songs feel like unnecessary front-loading, with Beck playing Beck and all of the miscellany that requires, “Missing” is a dense samba twirl that feels like a foundation, hung on Sea Change-worthy twilight strings and Mr. Hansen’s glided delivery.
Continuing on the career-span-as-album tip, “Black Tambourine” is a tangled apocalyptic jungle workout, grinding along on fathom-deep bass strokes and tribal drumming. As the wire-haired guitar solo begins that will lead the song to its end, for the first time we see Beck making up on his scattered allusions to finally making a ‘guitar album.’
Static-clinging to those final brusque guitar notes, “Earthquake Weather” traces the lite FM soul of Midnight Vultures, perhaps simultaneously Beck’s most underappreciated and most titillating record. Atop a blue-souled groove and whirring vocal samples, Beck sings about the spaces in between us all, those crippled holes that separate us when we’re closest.
Following the electro-funk spasticity of “Hell Yes” and the muscular rock of “Broken Drum,” “Scarecrow” is one of the album’s highlights, a dank voodoo jam that embodies all the patchouli excess of the sixties, the low-brow experimentalism of the record-shop junkie, and the recidivism the technological era holds with the simplicity of the bayou and its sweaty timelessness—the Dr. Johns, the Professor Longhairs, even the Marie LeVeaus at its root. Beneath the spirited whine of the swamp, Beck guides his steam-haired groove by the longest of leashes, allowing it to sway and simmer around its bare edges against rusty mouth-harp solos and sparse instrumentation.
“Go It Alone” is led by Jack White’s distorted, earth-axis bassline, which howls against back-room handclaps and more deep-south grooves. As the track picks up speed, crunchy guitars begin to crack against the pulse. Ending with a slow electric piano roll, the song’s simplicity is matched by its intrinsic dirty-pull.
Even with Guero’s myriad sounds and seeming career-tracking, it’s far too facile to write it off as geriatric-chic, a final desperate wheeze for relevance. I fear many will bemoan the record’s relative familiarity as the death of one of our generation’s true studio showmen. Guero is nothing of the sort. With this, his eighth proper album, Beck has shed himself of Sea Change’s need to shelter himself in his songs. We have our urban craftsman back, to stir the dust in sampled record grooves and unearth for us, again and again, the new in the old and vice versa. Post-every-post, we have Beck.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARCH 28 – APRIL 3, 2005