We begin with the greatest lyrics ever written.
Somber songs of the plaid bartenders
Western Unions of the country Westerns
Silver Foxes lookin' for romance
With the chain-smoke Kansas flashdance ice pants
Beck "rapped" these words in 1996, the artistic apex of "Hotwax," the artistic apex of Odelay, the artistic apex, to date, of Beck's career. These words are evocative, hilarious, intangibly sensual, and completely nonsensical. Also -- and this is important -- they rhyme pants with dance. In fact, Beck repeated this miraculous feat during the fadeout of Odelay's very next track, "Lord Only Knows."
Goin' back to Houston
Do the Hot Dog Dance
Goin' back to Houston
To get me some PANTS
This indicates how mind-blowing an album Odelay was. This indicates how mind-blowing Beck is capable of being.
He rhymed pants with dance.
He has vacillated wildly ever since, strictly alternating between Serious Albums and Goofball Albums. First 1998's Mutations, slinky but somber. Then came the following year's profoundly polarizing Midnite Vultures, a ludicrously frivolous house party that sprayed irony with firehose intensity. Then 2002's dead-serious Sea Change, his heartbroken singer-songwriter lament. These extremes don't necessarily negate one another -- you can adore the pre-"Loser" gem "Satan Gave Me a Taco" and the Sea Change weeper "It's All in Your Mind" in equal measure.
If Beck ever married those impulses himself, of course, major American cities would have to be rebuilt. His latest, alas, will leave your apartment complex sadly intact.
Following the pattern, Guero should be (and primarily is) a Goofball Album, especially given the reprise of the Dust Brothers, who produced Beck for the first time since Odelay. But Beck also reenters the public arena via a ponderous four-thousand-word New York Times Magazine profile soberly appraising his legacy, his celebrity circle of friends and lovers, and his spiritual resurgence via Scientology. It is imperative that we not let this man become Sting -- a once-deified innovator slowly buffed and sanded and rendered harmless by constant attention from Tracks and Rolling Stone and the other nefarious purveyors of Old People Music. The Times Magazine headline canonized "Beck at a Certain Age" -- let's keep that age around fourteen.
A truly inspired fourteen-year-old would not craft "E-Pro," Guero's leadoff track and improperly chosen first single, with its badass guitar riff and na na na na chorus. Lovely, toe-tappin', Live 105-ready, instantly forgettable. Start over. "Qué Onda Guero" does just that -- careening through the Latino Disneyland of Beck's Los Angeles adolescence, with a bedroom-funk beat remarkably similar to Odelay's beloved "Hotwax." But that tune's equally beloved surrealist lyrics are jilted in favor of far more linear imagery -- the singer "raps" See the vegetable man in the vegetable van/With the horn that's honkin' like a mariachi band, twisting the "mariachi" like an overzealous Spanish 201 student and sprinkling bilingual chatter about like taco lettuce. It actually isn't a bad tune: a sped-up, tripped-out cousin to Jonathan Richman's wide-eyed international field trips. Just don't try to do the Hot Dog Dance to it.
At times Guero does feel like the silly/serious hybrid holy grail -- "Girl" mixes eight-bit video game beats and a boisterous Beach Boys chorus with Mars Volta lyrical grit: I saw her/Yeah, I saw her with her hands tied back rags are burnin'/Crawlin' out from a landfill, live/Scrawlin' her name upon the ceiling. "Missing" is the obvious Sea Change grad student, continuing Beck's obsession with Gilberto-grade bossa nova beats as he bellows I prayed heaven today/Bring its hammer down on me in a deep, sonorous, take-me-seriously voice. You do. And "Earthquake Weather" is a phenomenal production feat and genuine Paul's Boutique artifact, fusing Brazilian guitar to slashing turntablist cuts and kiddie-pop keyboards. The acid trip sequence in Garden State II: Whine Harder will be scored thus, and it will totally change your life.
And then there's "Hell Yes," Guero's obvious Eureka Moment, its bassline oozing cartoon menace, Beck's equally cartoonish hip-hop flow blowing down manholes and up skirts, and an unbilled Christina Ricci cooing "Please enjoy" periodically like a giddy geisha girl. Five seconds is all Beck needs to assert total dominance, and this -- and this alone -- asserts, asserts, asserts.
The rest of Guero floats peacefully by, a haze of uneasy white-funk groove with vicious basslines and occasional literary bite -- Scarecrows only scarin' themselves, Beck chants. "Farewell Ride" reminds you how frequently he invokes and deifies old blues singers, forlornly twanging his guitar and snarling Two white horses in a line/Take me to my farewell ride. The way Beck transcends genre and mood album by album, track by track without sounding completely contrived is still unparalleled. And Guero overall doesn't embarrass anyone; it's solid collectively and even adds a few select tunes to the one-CD Essential Beck Mix pantheon. But within that pantheon "Hotwax" will outweird them, "Jackass" outcharm them, "Debra" outsex them, and "Lost Cause" outcry them.
This man's maturation process needs to be impaired, blockaded, and ideally halted completely. Guero is a wonderful, innovative, safe Goofball Album that Beck should never make again. As L. Ron Hubbard himself suggested, "Let's get retarded." Get stupid, get ridiculous, get crass, get absurd. Dalí, not Dylan. For I still proudly carry a hyper-specific memory of listening to 1994's "Pay No Mind" while languishing in a Taco Bell drive-thru, laughing like an idiot when Beck mumbled Like a giant dildo crushing the sun as though it were scripture. Because it is, in point of fact, scripture. Please, Satan, sell us another taco.
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