In 1994, the surprise hit “Loser” gave 24-year-old Beck the greatest gift any thrift-shop elitist could ask for: the luxury of being wary of success. When the masses started massing a little too eagerly, Beck started to temper his catchy chart-climbers with plenty of half-baked experimentation. Beck albums were segregated into the “official” commercial-friendly major-label releases (Mellow Gold, Odelay) and the indie nods to indiscriminate muse-following (Stereopathetic Soulmanure). But even the radio candy of the double-platinum Odelay (“Devil’s Haircut,” “Where It’s At”) was packaged alongside plenty of recondite indier-than-thou fare.
Over time, though, either Beck’s artistry or his commitment to customer service improved considerably. Midnite Vultures (1999), a snarky take on the sonic and rhetorical excesses of double-knit disco funk, was both baroquely self-indulgent and eminently listenable. Mutations and Sea Change staked out different territory—drowsy folk and country on the former, panoramic balladeering on the latter—but were similarly consistent.
On his eighth studio album, Guero, Beck integrates his personae into a fairly seamless whole, and his knack for synthesizing disparate musical elements (hip-hop, robot funk, blues, country, jazz, garage rock, etc.) extends beyond samples and individual tracks. The songs migrate smoothly from one to the next; there aren’t any throwaway numbers to sabotage the album’s momentum; the whole thing coheres.
Guero takes the sounds of early-nineties Los Angeles as its initial reference point. “E-Pro,” the album’s opener, is first-generation rap-rock, a raunchy guitar riff paired with a spartan Beastie Boys drumbeat from the “Check Your Head” era and a nah-nah-nah-nah-nah chorus to give sports-arena crowds something to sing along with. “Qué Onda Guero” is built around a blunted guitar loop repeated ad infinitum, muted mariachi horns, and ambient street noise. In other words, it’s a leisurely stroll through Cypress Hill terrain, minus the random violence. To fill that void, perhaps, there’s a random shout-out to James Joyce.
As the album progresses, the source material turns rootsier. White Stripes front man Jack White supplies instant swagger and a thumping bass line on the bluesy “Go It Alone,” and in an effort to keep pace, Beck gives his vocals an Elvisy man-purr. When the nah-nah-nahs from “E-Pro” show up here for an encore, they demand entirely different punctuation. Then, it was fist-pumping time; now a little hip-grinding is in order. And Beck, who, even in funk mode, rarely strays far from clinical detachment, actually sounds pretty loose here.
This makes for a nice effect, and if there’s anything Guero could use more of, it’s a sense of that looseness, a sense of Beck’s being moved by his material, or at least having fun with it. Unfortunately, Beck’s voice is only a moderately expressive instrument. He tends to bury his vocals in the mix; he holds back. When the energy’s not coming from the music, his voice isn’t going to change things much, and thus tracks like “Black Tambourine” and “Earthquake Weather” remain stuck in the groove of pretty good background music.
But Guero has many standout songs, too, like the collaboration with White, and a chain-gang blues chant called “Farewell Ride” in which the tambourines hiss like rattlesnakes and the other percussive elements deliver a dusty field-holler whomp. And, most of all, there’s “Scarecrow.” With its shuffling tempo and distant, keening synths, it’s a classic road song: “My soul’s just a silhouette / On the ashes of a cigarette,” Beck drawls, and his world-weary tone puts one in mind of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’.” Here, however, there’s no honky-tonk hippie idealism at play—just enervated stoner dread and the exhilaration that overwhelms you when you realize that no matter where you think you’re headed, you’re never quite going to get there. Life’s winners may not be able to relate, but the losers understand.