By Clay Johnson
Published: Thursday, April 14, 2005
Beck Hansen wears many a nametag. I dare you to pick up any magazine and read an article about him. Prepare to be peppered with characterizations of this curious pop-art wonder that run the gamut from the mundane to the grandly grandiose. Indeed, he is icon and iconoclast. He is fashion icon and slacker minstrel. He is pop culture junkyard hunter-gatherer and groundbreaking style-shaking pretense-less pretender. He is aimlessly wandering the streets of Los Angeles while steering the ship of music along the borders of its credibility. He is this generation's Bob Dylan, sniping carelessly from along the watchtower.
Beck is all this, less than this, and more than this. Those who sketch portraits of Beck for mass consumption in jet-setting publications (and the Exponent) often creep to the edge and peer, pouring their minds through the funnel of Beck's status. He is described with a viewpoint that attempts to magnify its vision through lenses constructed of the prism of Beck's kaleidoscope of music.
Yet Beck transcends those who would define him by seemingly abandoning pretense. His muse leads him to lands populated with Latin rhythms, hip-hop beats, distorted guitars, and other disparate denizens.
Beck burst onto the scene in 1994, a probable one-hit-wonder carrying under his belt the smash "Loser," proclaimed the slacker anthem and featuring fusions of hip-hop, folk, and the like. This mirrored the experimental and off-its-rocker nature of the album it spewed forth from, Mellow Gold. With "Loser," the money was immediately in the bank-who can't identify with a line like "I'm a loser, baby / So why don't you kill me?" It was ironicism and poignance blended up in a tart smoothie, and if you can't understand that line you probably aren't in league with the slacker hipsters that Beck represents in the eyes of Rolling Stone.
With a jagged niche carved out for him in the music industry's ivory tower, the full brunt of Beck's assault on the critical elite came next. 1996's Odelay was a less abrasive and more focused shard of sensational brilliance, fusing genres and straining at its bounds through its unyielding outpour of wit, pop-culture collage, and playful fun. Mutations came next but was not considered an official follow-up, and then Midnite Vultures showed up.
Who knew Beck would channel Prince and James Brown? The album was insane, off the charts with a seventies soul vibe permeating some tracks and a knowing wink visible in the mind's eye with each listen. Genius rarely sounded so strangely appealing.
But just when it seemed Beck, often compared to the legendary Bob Dylan, was stuck knee-deep in the whimsy and madvillainy of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde period, he struck back in 2002 with Sea Change, an album inspired by heartbreak and dripping with tearless blood. Melancholy resounded throughout it; critics said it represented the seriousness of a post-9/11 world in which pop culture could no longer embrace frivolity. That album was, indeed, capable of reaching into the chest and clutching the heart until it beat in time with the sadness on display. With the seriousness of its themes of heartbreak, pain, futility, personal exploration, and the like, Beck showed that he had more tricks up his sleeve.
Now, Beck is back, returning somewhat to the scattershot style of pre-Sea Change albums. With Guero, which famously means "white boy" in Spanish, we see that Beck may have been permanently affected by his foray into serious subject matter. The giddy hop-scotching through random worlds constructed from the leftovers of Beck's midnight television consumption no longer leads one through its environs as merrily. Yet the slight edge of adulthood that replaces the spry youthful charm of Beck's previous work actually works well, bringing him closer in many ways to Dylan's shadow.
The actual music has less of a rusty home-grown basement feel, a more polished sheen--replacing that element of Beck's music. Songs such as "E-Pro" and "Rental Car" retain buzz saw guitar but without the bite normally present when Beck delves into that style. "Hell Yes" and "Que Onda Guero" contain hip-hop beats as good as serious rap artists can muster, with the former flowing through the same vein as the Beck Lampoon Hip-Hop Vacation of Midnite Vulture's "Hollywood Freaks."
Lots of excellent acoustic guitar touches punctuate the album's tracks, sometimes lacerating with their precision and out-of-place yet classicist-Beck visages. "Go It Alone" features Jack White on bass, but his appearance is underwhelming without his peerless mastery of the guitar. The best track is "Girl," with its modern classicism and effortless magnetic pull instantly and breezily latching onto anything with ears.
The entire album is good, though at times the hooks seem out of place. "Farewell Ride" may be the best track on the album musically but falls short lyrically due to a woeful hook. A sameness permeates some parts of the album when the drums and beats become too prominent, and the relentless frenetic energy of some of Beck's earlier work is missed often with the more poetic and stark imagery often prominent here. And as usual with Beck, the songs are rarely straightforward pop fare, serving more as poetic snapshots and collages.
Ultimately Guero is a successful album. The album is eclectic and fuses many elements of Beck's previous work (the seriousness of Sea Change, the more experimental musical moments of Odelay, etc.), and this is a good thing but at times the extremes of his former work are missed. The standout moments of Guero are sharp enough to slice deeply but there are areas in which the blade dulls to the point that it grinds the momentum to a crawl. Still the overall effect is high quality, and while not up to the ramshackle ingeniousness of the masterwork Odelay this is worth picking up.
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