Never mind that Beck looks approximately 15. Never mind that he previewed songs from Guero, his eighth album, on The O.C. He’s 34 years old, married, and a new father. Is it any surprise that his decision to re-enlist the Dust Brothers, the beat scientists behind his double-platinum Odelay, has been roundly dismissed as the desperate ploy of an aging hipster? One of the callow wags at Pitchfork actually called him middle-aged. Ouch. But it’s inescapable: The golden boy of ’90s indie rock is getting older, and, given Clear Channel’s stranglehold on the commercial airwaves, a return to his improbable 1996 success seems unlikely. He’s a loser, so why don’t we kill him, baby?
Rather than a cynical rehash of his Odelay heyday, Guero represents a synthesis of Beck’s stylistic personae. From One Foot in the Grave’s slacker cowboy to Mellow Gold’s po-mo MC to Odelay’s bargain-bin bricoleur to Midnite Vultures’ self-mocking playboy to Mutations’ tropicalia troubadour to Sea Change’s heartbroken chamber-folkie, Beck has reinvented himself with nearly every album. But how many times can you reinvent yourself before you learn to live in your own skin? Unless he’s planning to dabble in gamelan or black metal on his next release (and with Beck, who knows?), it stands to reason that his music is beginning to sound familiar more than 10 years into a prolific career.
Guero proves that familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt. Sure, you can play the geek’s game of matching each new song with a precursor from the back catalog — “E-Pro” might be an Odelay outtake; “Missing” wouldn’t be out of place on Mutations; “Broken Drum” sounds like another gorgeous Sea Change downer — but you’d be doing both Beck and yourself a disservice. It’s much more rewarding to notice the way that he’s incorporating all of the past decade’s experiments into a cohesive whole, the way that he’s investing earlier themes with fresh insights. If previous Beck CDs sometimes sounded like ironic genre exercises, Guero sounds like a collection of songs by someone who’s — gulp! — matured. It’s not really a retrospective so much as an integration.
Although Guero offers many moments of two-turntables-and-a-microphone-styled delirium, handclap-peppered party anthems that would, in a just world, righteously rule the Top 40 à la OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”, Guero is a serious album. This is not to say that it lacks humor (dig the uncredited Christina Ricci cameo on “Hell Yes,” for instance), just that it isn’t merely a goof designed to amuse self-loathing young Caucasoids. As 2002’s Sea Change demonstrated (to those who weren’t really listening to Mutations), there’s more to Beck than shiny pink pants, obscure samples, and random stonerisms. Even on seemingly lighthearted songs, recurring themes of death, isolation, loss, and destruction abound, unsettling harbingers that pierce the frivolity like maggots in a cupcake. With its filthy guitar hooks and Beastie Boys sample, opening track “E-Pro” na-na-nas its way to pop nirvana, but listen to the closing lines: “It’s sick the way these tongues are twisted/The good in us is all we know/There’s too much left to taste that’s bitter.” “Girl” mixes jerky electro, early-’90s fuzz riffage, giddy vocal harmonies, and even an oddball country-blues bridge into a confection so delectable that you almost forget it’s about murder as the ultimate romantic conquest. From the Jack White collaboration “Go It Alone” to the unexpectedly tender “Emergency Exit,” the 13 cuts on Guero all share a ruinous, blasted beauty. Once, Beck was the consummate insider; Guero sounds like an outsider’s pre-emptive elegy for a precious, precarious world that never really got him anyway.