Guero parties with death, wakes up with life
scared, be happy. Freeze your toes off, sweat a lot. Take risks, bask in your
regrets. Black isn't beautiful, it just is. Yanni just is. The devil was
once an angel, and his other name is Conscience. Life is pain and gain,
truth lies somewhere amid the two. But don't you know life is just a
teetering mound of memories, terrible lies we tell ourselves, sheer scrap
and crap in tall piles. And all the while, time swaggers on, till we die.
Plus and minus, endings
and beginnings: Ain't a dime's worth of difference between such extremes,
concludes Beck on his new Guero. These and other observations spew forth in his
spring of 2005 ÐÐ but something's a little off. In the past, homeboy has
dependably seesawed between broody sincerity records (good ones like his
previous Sea Change, and great ones like Mutations) and doofier "aw screw it"
albums. Guero alters the plan, presenting a hybrid in tone that suggests,
despite the outrageous cheese of its more flippant party tunes, a kind of
post-adolescent-gloom maturity that's working hard to reconcile undeniable
big ups with eternal murky downs.
Beck's gone back to his
old producer mates the Dust Brothers to grease up Guero, a shrewd move that gives much
of the album a dingy, initially unconcerned aura quite unlike the Nigel
Godrich-produced Sea Change (lest we fear he's gone for good down the old misery hole). Guero's
"just do it"
feel reflects, no doubt, Beck's recent big life changes, apparently changes
for the better, such as his marriage last year and subsequent fatherhood.
Supposedly the vibe he was after was a kind of return-to-roots deal, that
funny, sensitive-slob thing that made the Dust Bros.-produced Odelay
So Beck brings it all
home again? Not quite. Bangin' tunes like the opening "E-Pro" mash Eagles
of Death Metal sleaze-thrash with Davie Allan & the Arrows biker rumble
as Beck's "talkin' trash to the garbage around you." Meanwhile the na-na,
bull-pop DNA forces you (resentfully, maybe) to croon along as ax fuzz and
rubbish bins club ya head like a caveman. The whole stinking mess, though,
is finely trimmed with Lilliputian electronic swirls, then words like "too
much left to taste that's bitter" confirm it: This isn't just another
"doesn't matter what he's saying" tune, and Guero probably won't be another
"not going to think too much" record.
The risquŽ, un-PC rap
"Que Onda Guero" ("Wuddup, White Boy?" roughly) brings on horn samples,
scratches and drum slops so blunted you wanna reach down and pull their
britches up ÐÐ yo, little brother, it's one of Beck's "just kickin' it
local" tunes. I thought this kind of cultural tourism of his was irritating
to the max at first (even if he did hang around MacArthur Park a lot as a
kid), and part of me still does (background snippet: "I'm going to LACC,
I'm taking a ceramics class"). But now I like the quadruple-twisted irony
of its cilantro-ambient lope, and especially the twinkling synth ornaments
a-dangling like Spanish tassle 'round the too-small windshields of my mind.
The Dust Bros.'
production touches here and pretty much throughout the disc are advanced
models of subtle obscurity and great finesse. Beck's playing a lot of
tricks on Guero, lyrically and musically. "Girl"'s poppy acoustic-guitar
drive and inexorable chorus of what sounds like "Hey! My summer girl" is, again,
a finely boiled-down '70s-'80s goulash that you can't help warbling 'cause
it's already muscle memory. This song's slightly grasping: The hodgepodge
of bottleneck slide guitar and Laurel Canyon pals' vocal chorus is a bit
contrived and stiff, but it's short and semisweet and...then you happen to
catch, possibly, what he's singing about. I do believe that his God-guided
vagabond protagonist is gonna keeel that summer girl, bury her, make her
wrong life right. Because this awful stuff is accompanied without a hint of
anything but audible joy, the effect is gnarly; Beck's creepy like a good
actor can be likably creepy, and then you feel like a creep for liking him.
You might call it art.
Such dark-side redemption is what's driving Beck these days. You find
that heaven-is-in-your-mind theme slipping through most of these songs,
whose semi-varied settings look back on and recombine Beck's musical
curiosities of the last decade or so. On the Brazilian-Bollywood mongrel
"Missing," Beck the vocal chameleon tries out that distressing clenched-jaw
emo pseudo-soul ("I hope rain doesn't come/wash me down the gutter") we've
all come to know and quiver to (totally unnecessary, too, as his own
unadorned voice is really pleasing). "Earthquake Weather" lifts JosŽ Feliciano's
"Light My Fire" guitar while mix-'n'-matching electro/hip-hop bass,
tight-butt '70s studio drums, a dash of "Who's That Lady" guitar whine,
rooster-strut clavinet break, and a vague mixage of sampled whosis for a
hologramatic effect. Out of that muck he then drags this odd, Franciscan
monk-style vocal chorus: "I push, I pull/the days go slow/into a void/we
filled with death," a theme that click-bangs in the context of the mix. All
these sitars, scratches and humming scenes are the little things in life,
aren't they, finding their analogue in a warmly indifferent world that
wisps memory, time and place.
to tell, with Guero you might end up finding out not much more than you already
knew ÐÐ about Beck, your life or the one he so patiently maps out. But it's
the sort of casually measured way he's doing it that makes it reverberate.
See how metaphor comes correct when the old-school "Hell Yes" uses his role
as DJ to lecture about the importance of doing your own thing, and cajoles
rappers and you to consider the vital difference between superficiality and
commonality. ("Hell yes," he vocoders, "I'm calling you out, I'm switching
my plates.") And all the while, time goes by, and you face life alone...but
it's your life.
Suddenly, "Rental Car"
pulls up and yanks you inside. The best thing on the album by a country
mile, it's the kind of song that'd make a right-on single but'd probably be
considered too complicated for dumbo Americans. Lyrically it's a mere
"screw everything, let's hit the road" tune, but the sound ÐÐ what a
glorious goosing of rock history, such freshly peculiar liquefactions: Nuggets
bass, a bit of "Under My Thumb" mallets/handclaps and a chorus of "yeah
yeah yeah"s over sampled snatches of ÐÐ the heck is it? Paul Mauriat's "Love
Is Blue"? (You hear what you want to hear, I guess.) Startling,
exhilarating. It deserves to be a smash hit.
Guero, in its respect for death, is a Mexican record. No, it's a
Zen record, 'cause Beck rejects the dramaturgy of a life's arc into death,
choosing instead to immerse in our common random, reckless spectacle as we
drift toward the big sleep, or Taco Bell. He doesn't want to come out and
say, "It's the wee things that count," so he sneaks it in like this
instead. And there's something very kind about that. Guero, in fact, is a comforting
record, not for the way these songs flash us back to the sound of a
simpler, happier time, but for the way this seasoned Beck's words and music
exemplify how keeping an eye on ourselves means listening to each other,
A few years ago I got
an invite to Beck's 30th birthday party, and, ignoramus that I am, I
figured that you get invited to someone's birthday party, you bring 'em a
present, right? So I made him a CD of some music I thought he might like. (Pretty
goony, eh?) I found myself embarrassed as hell to hand this big star this
dumb birthday present, I mean I felt so stupid. But I can't forget how
quietly gracious he was about it, like he really appreciated the gesture.
And I'll be blowed if that particular superstar didn't write me a thank-you
note. I still have it, carefully filed away here at home. He didn't have to
do that, but he did, is all I'm saying.
Anyway, one thing's for
sure, and that is, when death comes knocking, you may end up proper buried
or washed up in a shallow grave. Beck says hey to all that ÐÐ and when Beck
says hey, it means nothing, it means everything.