If you were to compress all thirteen tracks of the album Guero into one song, clocking in at about four minutes, then you might have something deserving of the accolades that critics tend to shower over Beck. Don’t get me wrong—by no means is Guero a bad album, but neither is it a great album. The only thing one can say for sure is that it’s a safe album.
Walter Murch, who created the sound montages for George Lucas’s THX 1138 and American Graffiti, said this of the special effects in the Star Wars prequels: “If you told me a fourteen-year-old had done them on his home computer, I would get very excited, but if you tell me it’s George Lucas—with all of the resources available to him—I know it’s amazing, but I don’t feel it’s amazing.” And that’s basically how I feel about Guero. It’s a nice, densely layered production that has the emotional range of an army of clones.
The problem is, when you can’t be pinned down, it’s difficult to go back and remind people from whence you came.
Beck has always fought against his image. After “Loser,” from 1994’s Mellow Gold, unexpectedly exploded, the record executives and marketing dorks wanted him to represent this new mid-nineties slacker thing that the kids were into. Beck, to his credit, wanted nothing to do with that, and followed up Mellow Gold with Odelay (although One Foot in the Grave, recorded before Mellow Gold, was exhumed and released in the interim). Odelay established him as a provocateur of musical ideas and silenced any naysayers who thought he was an alterna-rock flash in the pan.
It also proved that Beck couldn’t be nailed down to just one genre—if anything, he’s his own genre. Since Odelay, Beck is at best a chameleon; at worst, a cipher. He has been a coke-addled Prince wannabe (Midnight Vultures), an artist fighting against the powers-that-be who won’t let him release his album on an indie label (Mutations), really bummed about a chick (Sea Change), and now he’s your good ol’ pal Beck again, bringing you back to those halcyon days of devil haircuts and new pollution.
The problem is, when you can’t be pinned down, it’s difficult to go back and remind people from whence you came. Beck’s heart is in the right place, but Guero feels too aloof, as though there are too many things he’s incapable of shedding, like the ennui that influenced Sea Change, the record-label parasites that force him to do this or that, or the smoke blown up his ass by music critics because they’re too afraid to say that his latest album is mind-barf.
After hating the shit out of Guero for a few weeks, I decided to break it into smaller bits to try and find something likeable. It was an experiment that succeeded in helping me put the thing into context: Beck has created the perfect album for the iPod age—you don’t even need the whole thing to get the point. By sloughing off the dead stuff, I was able to find some really amazing things. “Girl,” for one, is the perfect song for bopping around the city on a sunny day with your headphones on. “E-Pro” puts a little bit of rhythm into my step while “Scarecrow” adds a little bit of luster while tooling around with the windows open.
But “Chain Reaction” (a bonus track available only on the special edition two-CD set, and the UK release) makes me want to punch someone in the face. It’s a Beck song in that it has rapping and a looped guitar riff, but it feels inert. I realize that titling the album Guero and singing the song “Qué Onda Guero” (another of my favourites) are extensions of a very specific feeling: that of being a white dude in a multi-ethnic world, of being someone who suspects that he’s an outsider—racially, ethnically, religiously and culturally—no matter how much he wants to fit in. It’s a very mature message and provides a world of material for Beck to choose from, but some mundane filler bogs it down.
Guero sounds like a mid-life crisis that has come far too soon.
In other words, Beck’s getting distracted; there are just too many factors pressing down on him. Guero sounds like a mid-life crisis that has come far too soon. He’s a father now, a married man, a member of the Church of Scientology. A musician well-regarded by his peers. A poet in an accelerated culture that’s hungry for something new to blog about. This is a lot of stuff to juggle. No critic has ever been able to successfully pin a label onto Beck because he was the kind of musician that could focus on many things at once. Now, perhaps, he’s paying for it by having more technology at his disposal than he knows what to do with. His armies of clones and droids are marching towards each other but they’re not really doing anything unexpected. Of course, whatever they’re doing looks and sounds awesome, but they’re still soul-less machines. As with the Star Wars prequels, one wonders what it all amounts to in the end.
Sea Change was the demarcation line between the first and second periods in Beck’s career. Guero marks the beginning of a third, one in which he’s chosen to go back to Odelay and trick out R2D2. I’m happy to have a Beck album that I can tie an anchor around, but is this going to be a period where all he does is just build additions to Skywalker Ranch? It’s easy to give Guero an A or five stars; only because one could hardly pan it outright (by the end of the year, I expect to see Guero topping most Best Albums of 2005 lists), but it does little more than provide background noise to the soundtrack of one’s existence. If that’s not what you want, if you want music that can provoke life rather than just complement it, you may have to wait for another “sea change.” Knowing Beck, it may not be too far away.
Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he’s written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.