Beck to the future
Pieces of his past mix with new ideas to create the dazzling patchwork of 'Guero'
When he burst out of the alternative rock underground 11 years ago with the slacker-anthem ''Loser," Beck was the picture of postmodern chic. There weren't enough fingers to count his influences. Beck's genius was synthesis, an unfettered, uncanny gift for snatching and juxtaposing sounds -- noise rock, samba, rap, psychedelia -- that simply didn't belong in the same song. There was no guiding principle to his audacious pastiches and whacked-out wordplay, and that exhilarating rootlessness was the point.
It didn't take long for novelty to become identity. The smart-aleck ironist who cut and pasted his way through his 1994 major label debut, ''Mellow Gold," proved himself an ingenious surrealist two years later on ''Odelay," a masterful sonic collage produced by the Dust Brothers. Beck became alt-rock's poster boy by ignoring every rule in the book, and his recording career followed suit. His tropical meditation on decay (''Mutations") was a critical success but racked up disappointing sales; his funk-slathered party album (''Midnite Vultures") was widely regarded as a smug exercise; and ''Sea Change," a soft and openhearted a collection of breakup ballads, was a departure from everything that came before.
Which brings us to ''Guero," Beck's eighth album, in stores today. He's reunited with the Dust Brothers, and the album's genius, once again, is an utterly skewed synthesis. But this time the 34-year-old musician forages in his own backyard. ''Guero" -- the Spanish slang term for ''white boy" he often heard growing up in East LA -- is an accumulation of musical ideas, life stages, and cultural references. The kaleidoscopic mash doesn't sound revolutionary. It sounds like Beck, who's now married to the actress Marissa Ribisi, father of 9-month-old Cosimo, and sole proprietor of his own genre: a dazzling, ''Odelay"-grade patchwork stitched together with rejuvenated musical wit and a boatload of dread and despair.
Hipster irony and zany humor have largely been replaced with an abstract assortment of dark memories, current disappointments, and downright devilish prospects. The mood is bleak even as Beck rips out of the gate into a nostalgic scrapheap of rock guitars and salvaged beats on ''E-Pro," the album's lead track and first single. ''Que Onda Guera" is, quite literally, a walk through the barrio, where Beck -- still on the outside looking in -- plays geeky white boy over recorded traffic noises, the shouts of vegetable vendors, and snippets of Spanglish conversation. We get ambient bossa nova (''Missing"), narcotic R&B (''Earthquake Weather"), broken-down country blues (''Farewell Ride"), and itchy dance raps (''Black Tambourine" and ''Hell Yes," featuring a kitschy uncredited cameo by Christina Ricci).
It's the new subversion, and Beck brings it into full bloom on ''Girl," an irrepressible pop tune that turns the musings of a serial killer into a sunny So-Cal serenade. He's fixated on death -- graves and lifeless bodies are generously scattered about these songs -- but you'd never know it from the perky platoon of handclappers on ''Rental Car." This is an impossibly vibrant collection of songs that, sonically at least, recall the wide-eyed wonder of Beck's early work. But it's not a case of an artist trying to replicate his landmark album.
There's a heaviness -- a humanness -- to ''Guero" that the brash absurdist who made ''Odelay" had no use for. And there's a jubilance that the lovelorn troubadour on ''Sea Change" probably couldn't imagine finding again. People don't change; they become the sum of their experiences. It's no surprise that Beck's canvas continues to expand, folding back on itself and unfurling simultaneously, as if following the contours of warped space.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.