catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 10 :: 2006.05.19 — 2006.06.02


The outsider is back

One look at the cover of Beck’s newest album, Guero, is all it takes to know that our man is back. Yep…the junkyard troubadour from Odelay has resurfaced, with just as many hot beats, surreal metaphors, and bizarre sound collages as ever. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll notice that the postmodern hipster seems to have lost part of his smirk, in its place adopting some of the melancholy and maturity of Sea Change’s heartbroken romantic.

In fact, listening to Guero feels almost like you’re listening to a collection of Beck’s greatest hits, minus the small detail that these are all brand new compositions. Every facet of Beck’s persona seems to be in place here. There’s a raggedy first single, propelled by whining buzz guitars and a relentless hip-hop beat a la “Devil’s Haircut” (“E-Pro”). There’s a brooding, folksy Calypso ballad that sounds like it would have been right at home on Mutations (“Missing”). There are a couple of wild, Midnite Vultures-style party numbers (“Hell Yes,” “Que Onda Guero”). There are even a couple of tracks that utilize the lush orchestration of Sea Change (“Missing,” “Emergency Exit”).

The sense of déjà vu can be so acute that some critics have gone as far as to write this album off as an uninspired, unoriginal Odelay knockoff. These writers obviously weren’t listening carefully enough; in actuality, Guero isn’t a rehash of old material as much as it’s a combination of all of Beck’s greatest strengths. These thirteen songs take everything that’s best about Beck and fuse them together, taking the genre-hopping eclecticism of Odelay and reigning it in with the focus and melodic directness of Sea Change.

The result may not be as inventive as Beck’s earlier work, and it may not be as emotionally engaging as Sea Change, but it just might be his strongest, most consistent feat of songcraft yet. While Odelay always had the feel of one vast experiment, Midnite Vultures felt like one long hipster joke, and Sea Change was too melancholy to be listened to frequently, Guero sounds like music from an artist who knows what he’s best at, and who’s truly having a good time making his music, uncaring as to what the critics will think.

“E-Pro” is a lead single that compares favorably to “Devil’s Haircut” with its cantankerous electric guitar buzz and head-bobbing dance floor beats courtesy of the Dust Brothers, back behind the soundboard of their first Beck album since Midnite Vultures. The song forms a seamless opening trilogy with “Que Onda Guero,” a beat-driven, bilingual drive through an ethnic neighborhood, and “Girl,” which sounds like the Beach Boys on speed. These songs blend as many diffuse sounds and genres as any of Beck’s past work did, but, while the songs on Odelay sometimes sounded random or arbitrary, the eclecticism on Guero is focused and precise, serving the songs rather than distracting from them.

Beck also turns in some of his most compelling ballads here. The rich strings from Sea Change make a guest appearance on “Missing,” and “Broken Drum” is immediately one of the most beautiful and emotionally direct songs in the Beck canon. The album’s highlight, though, is “Earthquake Weather,” which starts out as another candidate for the dance floor before morphing into a smooth, 1970s R&B groove.

Lyrically, Beck has always (well, with the exception of Sea Change) highlighted the amoral madness of the postmodern age, speaking through weird, offbeat metaphors and a confusing, pop-savvy language all his own. He’s as perplexing and compelling as ever on Guero, but some of his Beck-isms come up short in cleverness and creativity. In “Hell Yes,” he quips “make your dreams out of papier mache,” and in “E-Pro” all his “troubles will hang on your trigger.”

When he’s sharp, though, he’s very, very sharp. What sets this album apart from Odelay is that here it’s actually possible to discern what these songs mean. On Guero, Beck is an outsider—the title is derived from a slang term for a “white boy,” used in the Hispanic Los Angeles community where Beck grew up—and he’s wandering up and down the streets with a heavy heart that’s been all but broken by the lunacy surrounding him.

In “Earthquake Weather,” Beck sings of a culture in which we try to fill our empty lives with meaningless, unsatisfying vanities:

I push, I pull
The days go slow
Into a void we filled
With death and noise

Shadowy forces are all around him in “E-Pro,” a song that finds Beck singing about “snakes and bones in the back of your room” and “too much left to taste that’s bitter.” He could be referring to manipulative politicians or to the biased news media when he declares “it’s sick the way these tongues are twisted,” but, rather than simply wallowing in despair, Beck exhorts us to activism, encouraging us to speak up for our beliefs:

Shoot your mouth off but know where you’re aiming
Don’t forget to pick up what you sow
Talking trash to the garbage around you

In “Missing,” Beck plays the role of the wanderer, “walking around with [his] boots full of rocks.” By the sound of these lyrics, perhaps the broken heart that he revealed on Sea Change never fully healed:

I prayed heaven today
Would bring its hammer down on me
And pound you out of my head
I can’t think with you in it

It’s one of the most moving and direct lyrics on what is mostly a very complex album. But complex doesn’t always mean difficult. Beck proves that here on an album that may not be his most ambitious or experimental outing, but it’s certainly his most consistent, and arguably his most enjoyable.

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