Midnight Vultures was Beck’s Controversy (or is it Young Americans?), sex-machine-tooled, pitiless, and exhausting; Sea Change was just as much a genre exercise, except that the genre was undercrafted, mask-dropping confessionalism. Both were commercial punts (though the latter is beloved by a significant cult), so it’s no shock that Guero is a retrenchment, with the Dust Brothers guiding the golden fluxchild through 11 of 13 succinct tracks, many coated in oil of Odelay. You’d call it a back-to-basics album, except Beck has no basics but bricolage: Opener “E-Pro” is a timbral Xerox of “Devil’s Haircut,” a few lines of near-sense (“hammer my bones on the anvil of daylight”) over a fuzz-groove chopped out of the Beastie Boys’ “So What’Cha Want.”
This time, Beck’s sampler-songwriter m.o. feels freshest on songs evoking some version, real or imaginary, of Southern California. Title-ish track “Que Onda Guero” extends the Spanglish introduced on “Loser,” observing the “TJ cowboys,” popsicle vendors, and churchgoing “abuelitas” of numberless Latino enclaves with the eye of a neighborly outsider. The title translates as “Where you going, white boy?” but the atmosphere is neither exotic nor threatening—no more so than the good-natured dude whose spoken riff about a Yanni cassette ends the cut. (The music resembles “The New Pollution,” though I can’t hear either one without flashing, not that I mind, on Urban Dance Squad’s “Deeper Shade of Soul.”) Next up, “Girl” drops an effortlessly harmonized Beach Boys chorus into a murderous love lyric (“I know I’m gonna steal her eyes. . . my summer girl”) to Manson-esque sunshine-and-noir effect. Three songs later, “Earthquake Weather”—a phrase Angelenos use to pretend they can predict the next big shake-up—captures the city’s uncertain topography, external and internal: “Something’s changing in the weather/like a riptide could rip us away.”
If more of Guero were as vivid as these state-of-the-state standouts, it would be Beck’s strongest set since Mutations. On musical grounds alone, it likely is anyway. “Broken Drum” (piano-threaded psych that quotes Big Star’s “Holocaust”) and “Missing” (with another of father David Campbell’s weeping string arrangements massaging a sample from Jobim arranger Claus Ogerman) are among his most fully formed ballads to date. Mike Simpson and Jon King’s beat construction is reliably sharp, and generally less crowded than on their ’80s-’90s work, perhaps because of the changed economics of sample clearances. The hooks hold out until “Go It Alone,” three-quarters in. But unfortunately, the verbal invention flags earlier. Take the ringtone-ready “Hell Yes”: “I’m cleaning the floor/My beat is correct” means to be this edition’s “two turntables and a microphone,” and Christina Ricci’s unbilled techno-geisha cameo (“please enjoy”) is, as Arthur Lubow put it in The New York Times Magazine, “droll.” But the verses are slack—”thought control/ghost written confessions/two dimensions/dumb your head down” sounds no better than it reads. Beck is too grown up for the jokey laundry lists that got him in the door, but he isn’t always sure what else to bring to the party.
Though his stormtrooper helmet doesn’t fit any longer, his new-Dylan getup does: The disc’s final third veers sharply backwards, toward the country blues of his pre-Geffen days. “Scarecrow” grafts “Billie Jean” glide to bottleneck slide as the singer twists in the wind: “All alone by a barren well/the scarecrow’s only scarin’ himself.” “Farewell Ride” and “Emergency Exit” are sparser, and equally doleful. One is a waitin’-round-to-die song, with imagery squarely in that tradition (“All I see is two white horses in the line”), the other a field holler (“Now hold your hand onto the plow/Work your body ’til the sun goes down”) carried on an electronic undercurrent. Whether they’re pure playacting or the veiled self-portraiture of a mid-career artist, these two songs seem beamed in from another album entirely. One foot on the dancefloor, the other in the grave. No wonder some of the steps are awkward.