How many artists today can prompt you to seriously, excitedly ask,”What’s he gonna do next?” Not very many.
Unlike, say, mid-period U2, so many young acts are on what might be called the blunt edge of pop; they’re singularly unconcerned with progress. The Strokes, Interpol, Kings of Leon — such bands have chosen an aesthetic and doggedly stuck with it. Wilco searches for new thrills, but leader Jeff Tweedy must continually scrap personnel to find them.
Beck, for a decade now, has been on a wildly veering, self-contained course. He has tried on styles (rap, Lomaxian blues, party funk, psych-rock) as though he’s in the fitting room of a modal department store. His last two LPs could not have been more self-consciously unlike each other. “Midnite Vultures” (1999) channeled Prince for an all-night dance party. “Sea Change” (2002) was what it said it would be: sober, low-key, rootsy.
“Sea Change” also pointed to a singer-songwriter core within Beck, who quietly contributed to a Gram Parsons tribute album the same year he released the hyper-ironic “Vultures.”
If “Sea Change” was deemed more “authentic” as a result, Beck’s latest, “Guero,” might seem like a return to stylized irony. Production duo the Dust Brothers are back, for one thing: They’re the knob-doctors who culled all the samples for Beck’s 1996 tour de force “Odelay.”
The collage that Beck and the brothers create here is instantly likable, from the singalong “na-na” chorus of the fuzz-rocker “E-Pro” to the cheery electro-pop of “Girl” to break dance-era hooks of “Hell Yes.” But on close inspection, “Guero” (a Spanish phrase for “white boy”) has as bleak a thematic union as that of the relationship debris of “Sea Change.”
“Guero” takes a detour or two over paved roads — “Que Onda Guero” is a walk through the barrio, and “Missing” is an enchanting bossa nova — but more often than not Beck is stuck in the desert, where images of dust and landfills provide gloomy metaphors.
“Guero’s” debris is existential — several songs explicitly mention death, while others (such as the saunteringly funky “Scarecrow”) more or less allude to it. “Girl” has whiffs of kidnapping, torture and murder, and the album’s last few songs are a kind of murky trio of death. “Farewell Ride” watches two white horses “carrying me to my burying ground.” “Rental Car” spots “a reaper.” The free-form “Emergency Exit” sees Jesus at the end of a hard day — or life.
Beck knows his limits as a singer, and his rapping lacks conviction; again, it seems like a satirical pose rather than a serious means of expression.
“Guero” is pop postmodernism turning in on itself. Beck scavenges the past, as he always has, but he’s showing signs of finding a sense of inspirational equilibrium, of returning to the place where he began with his breakthrough hit “Loser” — at rock’s taproot, the blues.