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Your Popsicle’s Melting

Photo by Autumn De WildeGet 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 — 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 such a bongload of beauty. 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, na-na-na-na-na hook’s 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 risquély? un-PC rap “Qué 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 — 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 José 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. Truth to tell, with Guero you might end up finding out not much more than you already knew — 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 — what a glorious goosing of rock history, such freshly peculiar liquefactions: Nuggets? wobbly fuzz bass, a bit of “Under My Thumb” mallets/handclaps and a chorus of “yeah yeah yeah”s over sampled snatches of — 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, too. 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 — and when Beck says hey, it means nothing, it means everything. Beck | Guero (Interscope)


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