It has always seemed to me that Beck is at his best when he is defying expectations, zagging when everyone expects him to zig. Some of his greatest musical moments are a product of his uncanny impulse to move counter to whatever beat he established on his previous recording as he does most notably on Mutations and Sea Change. And then there are his contributions to tribute albums for artists like Gram Parsons, Mississippi John Hurt, Hank Williams, and Daniel Johnston, which often sound nothing like what we expect Beck to sound like and reveal how deeply connected he is to folk and blues traditions.
Guero, Beck's latest release, continues his tradition of zagging instead
of zigging. He's ditched the in-your-face forlorn melancholy of Sea Change and
returned to what many consider a more classic Beck sound. The results, however,
sound like he is simply going through the motions. There is nothing here that
thrills with its audacity, beauty, beat or lyrics. Instead, we are given a solid
batch of songs that for any other artist would be a crowning achievement, but
for Beck is just mediocre.
Echoes of his earlier work are sprinkled throughout Guero. "E-Pro" opens
the disc with a snarling guitar line that comes straight out of Odelay's "Devil's
Haircut." The drowsy, folk-tinged "Broken Drum" would sound right at home on
either Mutations or Sea Change, while "Farewell Ride" draws on
Beck's understanding and appreciation of the blues. "Qué Onda Guero," one
of the album's more interesting songs, is a goofy mish-mash of Latin beats and
the sounds of the barrio. Beck's quirky lyrics and Spanish singing, combined
with random voices heard throughout, create a surreal atmosphere that would
be right at home in the Mirador Motel scenes from Touch of Evil. But
in the end it fails to take off, leaving the listener with a vague sense that
there is something great struggling to burst free from the confines of the song.
And yet, despite the presence of ghosts from Beck's previous work, this isn't
an attempt to reproduce any of his other albums. If anything, Guero seeks
to combine the ironic playfulness of Odelay with the weary, more mature
outlook of Sea Change. The problem is that Beck hasn't found the right
combination yet. The lyrics' darker tone clashes with the rhythms, dragging them
down to a sluggish pace. At the same time, the jauntiness the music aims for
often obscures the song's lyrical thrust. I have complete confidence that Beck
will eventually hit upon the winning formula, and when he does we will look back
on Guero as an important step towards something greater.