|BELIEVE THE HYPE? BECK'S GUERO.|
Beck stopped being cool a long time ago. His breakthrough single, "Loser," is now a fossil -- damn thing's 11 years old. Odelay came out in 1996. Now in his mid 30s, married, a father, a Scientologist, without a hit for many a moon, Beck feels antiquated, a
critic's darling past his prime.
With those consensus opinions in mind, Guero, Beck's latest, has widely been accepted as his Odelay Redux, a chance to recapture the commercial heat of his younger years when lo-fi hip-hop collage seemed innovative. Since most Beckophiles consider Odelay his highwater mark (and this includes music critics), Guero has gotten slightly reserved praise. People like it, but they hear it as a calculated attempt to manufacture another hit -- even Odelay producers the Dust Brothers are back behind the boards.
But for anyone who hasn't toed
the Beck company line -- for anybody who doesn't accept Odelay as the best the man could do -- Guero might well be the first record of his in a while worth enjoying. For all those who prefer Mellow Gold to Odelay, Mutations to Sea Change, congratulations: The Beck album you've been waiting for has arrived. Guero isn't cool in the least.
Beck's encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop, tropicalia, rock and points in between was never in question, but his ability to separate his art from his influences' has been far trickier. Mellow Gold, his wonderfully goofing-around debut, showed a young man trying one sonic strategy per song -- country for "Nitemare Hippy Girl," thrash for "Mutherfuker," white-boy rap and blues for "Loser" -- and the result sounded like the best of your record collection on shuffle. Behind its self-deprecating humor and bad spelling, Mellow Gold hid the ambitious streak of an outsider artist who didn't much care what popular culture was serving up at the time. Soon, though, he would.
After a couple digressions on tiny labels (which further established his indie cred, folk tendencies and Borscht Belt sense of humor), he returned with Odelay, a clever mixture of samples and in-jokes that occasionally lead to terrific material. Too often, though, the tunes felt congested -- too many ideas crammed together to let the melodies always breathe. It was the first time that he seemed to be over-thinking the songs, which reduced their charm noticeably.
Nonetheless, Odelay's originality made Beck the mid-'90s "voice of a generation" winner -- fittingly, the record's first single was called "Where It's At." Perhaps emboldened by his zeitgeist good fortune, he delivered the mesmerizing Mutations, a record so haunted and spare and sincere that the Odelay groupies hated it. Returning to the troubadour tradition he started from when singing on street corners as a teen, Mutations sold poorly, prematurely cutting short his superstar moment. To my ears, the commercial indifference to Mutations caused Beck to freeze up a little. His follow-up records awkwardly sought mass appeal but also were burdened by mammoth amounts of self-consciousness -- the concept-heavy "dance album" Midnite Vultures and the concept-heavy "breakup album" Sea Change. After cutting Mutations very quickly over a few weeks, Beck has fatally fussed over his subsequent material, turning Vultures sterile and Sea somnolent. The critics hung in there, but the masses kept slipping away.
So while Guero may strike some as a new Odelay, Beck actually sounds like he's given up on reclaiming that larger audience. This is a good thing; after all that trying and deep thinking, Guero is confident and effortless. Less a redo of Odelay than a sharp improvement on it, the new album condenses the genre excursions of his last two records, whittling away the failed experiments. Beck's talent has always been more aural than lyrical -- even the death-heavy Mutations primarily pushed its effect across musically -- but he's never shaped his sounds more concretely than here. He may still be singing nonsense, but his hooks and melodies are stunningly articulate.
Nevertheless, I'd argue that Beck's newfound acceptance of his un-coolness has been the strongest contributing factor to this great batch of new material. In interviews recently, the eternal manchild has sounded not quite dull, exactly, but aware of his receding popularity. A wife and child no doubt play a part in his calmer disposition, but he no longer acts like the ironic hipster of the Odelay era. (Indeed, part of the problem with Midnite Vultures was that lesser talents like Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior could make better camp-disco albums than he could dream. By comparison, Beck just seemed totally square.)
Call it maturity, but the sound games of Guero eschew look-at-me tricks and are all the better for it. There's no knowing wink, just songcraft. "Guero" in Spanish means "white boy," something Beck says he got called a lot growing up in his multicultural Los Angeles neighborhood, and Guero plays like a proud acceptance of his outsider status. Rather than the flippant theft of the past, "Qué Onda Guero" is a lovefest dedicated to his Southern California roots; languages and cultures intermixing without prejudice. Importantly, like a lot of Guero, it feels less hyperactive than assured, cruising its sidewalk-bazaar milieu with the casual knowledge of a lifelong resident who's comfortable in his niche.
Too old to show off anymore -- there are dozens of younger, hungrier artists who can beat him at that game -- he works his familiar metaphor of life-as-bitter-decay. But unlike on Sea Change and even the mighty Mutations, he's finally figuring out that depression can be muscular and hooky. The propulsive "Missing" and hypnotic "Broken Drum" are two of Beck's best breakup songs, because you can feel the curves of the music: They don't just moan off into the distance. And "Rental Car" kicks out a fuzzed-up guitar riff that's more apocalyptic fun than Mutations while simultaneously being funkier than most anything off Midnite Vultures.
Some have complained that certain Guero songs echo earlier hits, but if "E-Pro" apes "Devils Haircut," the new song is also fierce in its own right, proof that Beck had at least one more great guitar rocker in him. (Likewise, "Hell Yes" answers the challenge of "Where It's At" with the steeliness of a pro who isn't spooked by some dorky rookie.) Odelay embodied an era where hip-hop was beginning to fully assert its cultural dominance after the malaise of grunge; Guero very much is the product of our post-everything era and in some ways is more defiant and triumphant for being both defeatist and buoyant at the same time. And he doesn't even crack a joke to make that happen.
Ultimately, Guero is a brave record. It's real easy to make music when everybody loves you -- once the cultural barometer shifts, that's when things get tougher. (Jack White of the White Stripes, who guests on Guero, should take that to heart.) Odelay is the albatross around Beck's neck and for several albums he tried to avoid it any way he could. Finally done competing with himself, he ends up making his best record in several years. The zeitgeist is beyond him now. Let the golden age begin.
Believe the Hype Rating: 7 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.