If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Beck Hansen has just established himself as a master of self-adulation. His new album Guero
is in many ways a tribute not to his musical forbears, but to his own work of the past dozen years, with a few curve balls thrown in to prove he’s still an artist, not just an anthologist.
Tracks like the opener “E-Pro,” “Qué Onda Guero,” and “Hell Yes” flash back to good old danceable Beck à la Midnite Vultures or Odelay, while the middle of the album is largely an extension of the pendular, string-heavy sound of Sea Change. Since Beck’s previous work has ranged from very good to brilliant, however, these new renditions of older stylistic motifs are far from unwelcome.
Lest we find Beck’s frequent nods to past projects too self-indulgent, he occasionally winks at the very gimmicks that first brought him fame. The over-the-top Gringo Spanglish of “Qué Onda Guero” (about as authentically Latino as Speedy Gonzalez or Taco Bell), hyperbolizes his perhaps most recognizable hit, 1993’s “Loser” with its relentless chorus of “soy un perdedor.”
In “Hell Yes” Beck gently teases his own hipness by posturing as the paragon of cultural mass-production: “code red cola war conformity crisis / perfunctory idols rewriting their bibles…fax machine anthems get your damn hands up.”
Guero’s influences stretch beyond old Beck material, embracing the inglorious lower tiers of pop culture and throwing them into the mix. Some of the electronic ditties, such as that of “Earthquake Weather,” recall the early 1990s childhood aesthetic of Super Mario Brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog. At other times Guero moves away from the standard beats and chord progressions of pop music to dabble in non-Western modes and rhythms; “Missing” is to Beck what “Within You, Without You” was for George Harrison on Sgt. Pepper.
Returning closer to home, “Go It Alone” channels the blues tradition of American music with a head-bobbing beat and unflappable composure. A groove this good could only have come straight from the source: I can picture Beck wandering the back alleys and dirt-caked hamlets of the American South armed only with a good ear and a tape recorder, a latter-day Alan Lomax.
Although Guero is a patchwork of “other” sounds, and never settles on one of its own, to call the album unoriginal is to miss the point. The album further refines Beck’s technique of appropriation-as-aesthetic, and the results are marvelous. Many of Beck’s lyrics deserve the title of poetry, bringing to mind T.S. Eliot’s adage that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
Besides, some aspects of Guero are neither self-referential nor culturally referential but brilliantly, confoundingly novel. “Girl,” for example, uses a breezy surf-rock melody to carry the narrative voice of a deranged, possibly homicidal voyeur.
Artist Marcel Dzama must have sensed this strange blend of sweetness and murk, as his drawings for the album’s cover and liner could be viewed alternatively as a morose grown-up’s take on Alice and Wonderland or a child’s fantastic documentation of life under dictatorship. Normally I find album visuals irrelevant at best, annoying and distracting at worst, but somehow these ghoulishly lovely illustrations complement Guero wonderfully, like marginalia to an illuminated manuscript.
The half-lit world of Guero lies somewhere between the last drink and the first hangover, between the rowdiness of the cantina and the dreaminess of the artist’s studio. In this strange border country, Beck, the “guero,” the white boy, holds court among the ghosts of his previous releases and the dysmorphic specters of cultural miscellany.
True, little new ground is covered in Guero—but since when has “new” categorically meant “better”? As long as there exist listeners who prefer sea glass to plate glass, urban decay to suburban sprawl, and redux to deluxe, Beck will maintain a corps of loyal fans. “My shivering voice is singing through a crack in the window, I’d better go it alone,” Beck murmurs. No need, Beck. We’re still here.