Beck Hansen, in his own enigmatic, ADD-infused manner, has become the symbolic torch-bearer for a generation of restless Americans. Having bounced around like a proverbial pinball for over a decade by tapping into seemingly every musical resource available to him (“Loser” was 11 years ago, kids, and even that was after the eerie foreshadowing of “MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack”), it seems only reasonable that Mr. Hansen eventually come back down to Earth sooner or later. Guero isn’t the sound of America’s favorite musical mad scientist settling into a groove as much as it is him putting his feelers out again and getting his bearings back. In such a tumultuous, helter skelter period in history, I daresay that having a new Beck album to absorb and bat around is downright comforting and reassuring, if nothing else.
Beck was saddled with the “alternative” tag from day one, more for the fact that music writers were significantly lacking in sufficient descriptors when he blew in from over the western seas than anything else. He jackknifed from amalgamation to amalgamation in record time with pretty much everyone trailing about four steps behind, culminating with his runaway hit Odelay in 1996. The upside of Beck’s schtick is that no one really had a lasting definition for it, and although “Where’s It At” and “Jackass” did have a groovy hipness about them, common touchstones from song to song (let alone album to album) were few and far between. After treading water with the “unofficial” acoustic gallivanting of Mutations and the hearty rump-shaking of Midnite Vultures, 2002’s Sea Change revealed the sharpest left turn of his already irregular story. Beck transformed into the sad, moping folkie, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Nick Drake left Terra Firma. This in turn violated the confidence of those who had seen Beck as the president pro-tem of their fraternity stereos, while whipping those who had formerly shunned his nomadic trendsetting into a shocked frenzy.
Guero, though, displays Beck’s discovery of a musical center for the first time in his career. The years leading up to Sea Change represented Beck’s formidable years; he kept us on our toes often times by virtue of nothing more than his youthful exuberance and curiosity. He had no boundaries that he was aware of, and he reaped the benefits of being We can see elements of his previous work scattered along Guero‘s surface, which is the opposite of probably the one and only thing that unified his entire back catalogue, that there was no pattern at all. “Missing” sounds like a b-side from Mutations‘ “Tropicalia,” with its sleepy, afro-Cuban lounge vibe; the spanglish-fried “Qué Onda Guero” finds him dipping into his vintage Odelay white-boy rap phase, while undoubtedly becoming the only song in history to name-check both James Joyce and Yanni; and lead single “E-Pro” is the resident Midnite Vultures roof-raising party anthem, with a side of chunky lead guitar. Brief glimpses of Sea Change even slip through the cracks on “Go It Alone” and “Farewell Ride,” though the rolling bass line of the former and the junky, alleyway blues of the latter tend to play the lead roles.
After throwing the curveball to end all curveballs on Sea Change, it appears that Beck is gradually easing himself into phase two of his career. Guero is less an exercise in him biding his time than it is just allowing himself to get reacquainted with the life he knew before his major, unscheduled detour. As great a success as Sea Change was in its own right (an album that proved he was a legitimate musical talent and not just a one-trick pony), it’s difficult not to think that the prodigal son has returned home. Guero is an album that never achieves the halcyon levels of Mellow Gold or Odelay, but as an ersatz sampler album chock full of vintage old-school Beck moments, it does quite well on its own terms. It feels good to have our old Beck back.