We begin with the greatest lyrics ever written:
Somber songs of the plaid bartenders
Western Unions of the country Westerns
Silver Foxes lookin' for romance
With the chain-smoke Kansas flashdance ice pants
Beck rapped these words in 1996, the artistic apex of "Hotwax," the artistic apex of Odelay, the artistic apex, to date, of Beck's career. These words are evocative, hilarious, intangibly sensual, and completely nonsensical. Also -- and this is important -- they rhyme pants with dance. In fact Beck repeated this miraculous feat during the fadeout of Odelay's very next track, "Lord Only Knows":
Goin' back to Houston
Do the Hot Dog Dance
Goin' back to Houston
To get me some PANTS
This indicates how mind-blowing an album Odelay was. This indicates how mind-blowing Beck is capable of being.
He had nothing to lose back then, except the one-hit wonder badge "Loser" allegedly earned him. Crammed into an elevator with the already-crumbling altrock nation -- Eddie on the left, Billy on the right, Kurt glaring down disapprovingly from some point above the ceiling -- he moonwalked out on the thirteenth floor with then-exotic hip-hop overtones (courtesy of Odelay producers the Dust Brothers) and sheer lyrical lunacy. His cup runnethed over with poignant-sounding catch phrases ("Two turntables and a microphone") and catchy phrases that were actually poignant ("You only got one finger left, and it's pointed toward the door"). His videos, "The New Pollution" especially, were beyond belief. He embodied the super-unknown far more thrillingly than Soundgarden ever did.
He rhymed pants with dance.
He has vacillated wildly ever since, strictly alternating between serious albums and goofball albums: first 1998's slinky but somber Mutations; then the following year's profoundly polarizing Midnite Vultures, a ludicrously frivolous house party spraying irony with fire-hose intensity; then 2002's dead-serious Sea Change, his heartbroken singer-songwriter lament. These extremes don't necessarily negate each other. One can adore the pre-"Loser" gem "Satan Gave Me a Taco" and the Sea Change weeper "It's All in Your Mind" in equal measure.
If Beck ever married those impulses, of course, major American cities would have to be rebuilt. His latest, alas, will leave your apartment complex sadly intact.
Following the pattern, Guero should be a goofball album, especially given the return of the Dust Brothers on production for the first time since Odelay. But Beck also re-enters the public arena via a massive, ponderous 4000-word New York Times Magazine profile soberly appraising his legacy, his celebrity circle of friends and lovers, and his spiritual resurgence through Scientology. It is imperative that we not let this man become Sting, a once-deified innovator slowly buffed and sanded and rendered harmless with constant attention from Tracks and Rolling Stone and other nefarious purveyors of old-people music. The NYTM headline canonized "Beck at a Certain Age." Let's keep that age around fourteen.
A truly inspired fourteen-year-old would not craft "E-Pro," Guero's leadoff track and improperly chosen first single, with its bad-ass guitar riff (Soundgarden, almost!) and na-na-na-na chorus. Lovely, toe-tappin', instantly forgettable. Start over. "Qué Onda Guero" does, careening through the Latino Disneyland of Beck's L.A. adolescence with a bedroom funk beat remarkably similar to that of Odelay's beloved "Hotwax." But that tune's equally beloved surrealist lyrics are jilted in favor of far more linear imagery: "See the vegetable man in the vegetable van/With the horn that's honkin' like a mariachi band," Beck raps, twisting "mariachi" like an overzealous Spanish 201 student and sprinkling bilingual chatter about like taco lettuce. It's actually not a bad tune: It's a sped-up, tripped-out cousin to Jonathan Richman's wide-eyed international field trips. Just don't try to do the hot-dog dance to it.
At times, Guero does sound like the silly/serious hybrid holy grail. "Girl" mixes eight-bit video-game beats and a boisterous Beach Boys chorus with Mars Volta lyrical grit: "I saw her/Yeah I saw her with her hands tied back rags are burnin'/Crawlin' out from a landfill, live/Scrawin' her name upon the ceiling." "Missing" is the obvious Sea Change grad student, continuing Beck's obsession with Gilberto-grade bossa nova beats as he bellows, "I prayed heaven today/Bring its hammer down on me" in a deep, sonorous, take-me-seriously voice. You will. And "Earthquake Weather" is a phenomenal production featuring a genuine Paul's Boutique artifact, fusing Brazilian guitar to slashing turntablist cuts and kiddie-pop keyboards. The acid-trip sequence in Garden State II: Whine Harder will be scored thus, and it will totally change your life.
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And then there's "Hell Yes," Guero's obvious eureka moment, its bass line oozing cartoon menace, Beck's equally cartoonish hip-hop flow blowing down manholes and up skirts, and an unbilled Christina Ricci cooing "Please enjoy" periodically like a giddy geisha girl.
The rest of Guero floats peacefully by, a haze of uneasy white funk grooves with vicious bass lines and occasional literary bite -- "Scarecrows only scarin' themselves," Beck chants. "Farewell Ride" reminds you how frequently he intones and deifies old blues singers as he forlornly twangs his guitar and snarls, "Two white horses in a line/Take me to my farewell ride."
The way Beck transcends genre and mood album by album, track by track without sounding completely contrived is still unparalleled. Overall, Guero doesn't embarrass anyone. Collectively it's solid and may even add a few select tunes to the one-CD essential-Beck-mix pantheon. But within that pantheon "Hotwax" will out-weird them, "Jackass" will out-charm them, "Debra" will out-sex them, and "Lost Cause" will out-cry them.
This man's maturation process needs to be impaired, blockaded, and halted completely. Guero is a wonderful, innovative, safe album Beck should never make again. As L. Ron Hubbard suggested, "Let's get retarded." Get stupid, get ridiculous, get crass, and get absurd. Dali, not Dylan. For I still carry proudly a hyper-specific memory of listening to 1994's "Pay No Mind" while languishing in a Taco Bell drive-thru, laughing like an idiot when Beck mumbled, "Like a giant dildo crushing the sun," as though it were scripture. Because it was, in point of fact, scripture. Please, Satan, sell us another taco.