erasing clouds

Beck, Guero

reviewed by matthew webber

A one-time New Dylan himself, Beck's lyrics have mostly been meaningless. The tag applied more to his capturing the zeitgeist (another phrase only found in arts and entertainment articles) in a song like "Loser" than for his lines about "getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz."

Plus, like Dylan, Beck plays the acoustic guitar, doesn't have an operatic singing voice, and reinvents himself with each new album. Although, with Beck, the reinvention can sound more like an overcorrection from each previous album, as he veers from genre-stealing white-boy funk to atmospheric white-boy blues and back again, from Odelay to Mutations to Midnite Vultures to Sea Change.

In Beck's most important work, or at least the most critically lionized, Odelay, Beck switched personalities from song to song or sometimes even from verse to chorus, which, paradoxically, seems to signify to anyone who lists this album as one of last decade's best that it also is his most consistent work, even though two later albums persisted in just one idea: sex (Midnite Vultures) and all the mornings after (Sea Change).

As fresh as Beck's alleged masterpiece sounded when it came out, I can't argue too forcefully against its greatness or "best"-ness. But I'll never argue it's my favorite. I listen to Midnite Vultures and Sea Change more often, especially the latter, whose picturesque lyrics - believe it or not - and warm, enveloping production remind me of girls I, too, have loved and lost and possibly still love even though I know they are lost to me forever. The record has the added charm of being the right one at the right time in my life, making it to me what Blood on the Tracks was to any broken-up music critic five years before I was born.

I'd even argue it's one of the top-five records this decade, and that Beck is one of my top-ten artists of all time, just because I share an irresistible urge to argue and quantify my favorites with fellow music geeks and other people who don't have anything better to do. (I suspect these people are this review's target audience.)

All this is to say that Beck's new album, Guero, isn't my favorite Beck album, nor will it be remembered as his best, as Beck mostly veers away from the melancholia of Sea Change all the way back to the hip-hop pastiches of Odelay. Depending on how decade-defining you found that album, Guero is either Beck's most or least consistent work in three albums.

Lead singles "E-Pro" and "Hell Yes" (at least on college radio, they're singles) and the vast majority of songs on the album are as funky as anything you'd expect out of tracks that feature a Beastie Boys' sample, Jack White, handclaps, and production by past, present, and probably future Beck (and Beastie) collaborators The Dust Brothers; as funky as anything by a white person.

The reason for the schizophrenic happiness in his Beck's new songs is simple: He got married and had a baby, not that you'd know by most of these song's lyrics. In fact, "Girl" and "Missing," if you want, can be about murder and suicidal tendencies, respectively, with lines like, um, "I'm gonna make her die," and "I prayed heaven today would bring its hammer down and pound you out of my head." That's more New Cash than New Dylan.

But just when I thought "Hell Yes" was the cleverest rap song since "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a harmonica solo kicked in, thereby proving it: Beck isn't the New Dylan, because that's an idiotic term.

But "My beat is correct" should become a new catchphrase.

And Beck, as indescribable as he is as a musician, might already be someone whose older music I have more fun describing, and listening to, than his new stuff, judging by this review. He might be my Prince, David Bowie, or Tori Amos (except I already have one of her). I want to continue relating to Beck, while he wants to play songs as different from his last batch as those songs were to the ones that came before, none of which were worse than decent, most of which I love, but all of which mean less to me than everything on Sea Change. But asking for a sequel would be asking Beck not to be Beck, at least until he writes his next album.

Yet Guero might be the most interesting album I've heard so far this year, and I mean that in a good way, not in an, "Oh, that's interesting" way, as no other album released in 2005 has made me laugh and tap the steering wheel concurrently. I'm only disappointed because it follows a masterpiece. If Guero had come out in the mid-'90s instead of the Beck albums that did, its songs would still sound fresh. In the mid-'00s, they sound like Beck's first repeated ideas, which I admit I still prefer to those of most troubadours and rappers.

Meet the New Beck, same as the Old Beck.


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