After the final out of the 2004 World Series, NBC played Beck's "The Golden Age" during the closing credits. It was a weird choice — they obviously picked the song to celebrate the Red Sox victory, judging it by the title but ignoring the fact that it's a heinously depressing breakup ballad. Jesus, talk about a buzz-kill. But it was a perfect Beck moment, given the strange way he's spent his career foraging through American junk culture. On Guero, his eighth album, he returns to what he does best, hopping from genre to genre, hustling for scraps of beat and rhyme. He has reunited with the Dust Brothers, the producers behind his 1996 masterpiece, Odelay, for his liveliest and jumpiest music in years. Suggested ad slogan: The slack is back!
Ever since Beck hit his peak with Odelay, he's stood firm in refusing to make a sequel, or even an album that sounded remotely like one. His MO has been to push one of his tricks all the way to album length. So he became a morose folkie on Mutations, a comedy-funk party yutz on Midnite Vultures and a broken-down love junkie on Sea Change. All these records had their good and bad moments, and all had their fervent admirers. But they erred too far on the side of consistency, and whoever wanted consistency from Beck? Guero is the first record since Odelay where Beck mixes up the medicine the way he did in his Nineties prime — we get stun-gun rock guitar ("E-Pro"), cracked country blues ("Farewell Ride"), psychedelic bossa nova ("Missing"), goth atmospherics ("Scarecrow") and laid-back fire-hydrant-Seventies R&B ("Earthquake Weather").
Throughout Guero, Beck dips deeply into Latin rhythms, reveling in the street culture of the East L.A. neighborhood where he grew up. "Que Onda Guero" is a walk through the barrio, with traffic noises and overheard Spanglish voices over Latin guitars and hip-hop beats. Guero is slang for "white guy"; Beck's an outsider here. The song ends with some stranger saying, "Let's go to Captain Cork's — they have the new Yanni cassette!" "Hell Yes" and "Black Tambourine" sound like they were knocked off in a session that began, "Hey, let's do some of those wacky, zany numbers we used to do," but they're still pretty great.
Guero will get Beck accused of copying Odelay, but it has a completely different mood. Tune in "Missing" or "Earthquake Weather," and you can't miss the melancholy adult pang in the vocals. The closest he comes to a funny line on the album is "The sun burned a hole in my roof/I can't seem to fix it." Which isn't too close. Beck is thirty-four now and can't pretend to be the same wide-eyed, channel-surfing kid who buzzed with wiseass charisma on Mellow Gold, Odelay and Stereopathetic Soulmanure. On Guero, he sounds like an extremely bummed-out dude who made it to the future and discovered he hates it there. The lyrics are abstractly morbid — lots of graves, lots of devils. Nearly every song has a dead body or two kicking around. At times, Guero feels as emotionally downbeat as Mutations or Sea Change. But there's a crucial difference: The rhythmic jolt makes the malaise more compelling and complex, with enough playful musical wit to hint at a next step. Beck isn't trying to replicate what he did ten years ago; instead, on Guero he finds a way to revitalize his musical imagination, without turning it into a joke.