Stay Young and Stupid
We begin with the greatest lyrics ever written:
"Somber songs of the plaid bartenders / Western Unions of the country Westerns / Silver Foxes lookin' for romance / With the chain-smoke Kansas flashdance ice pants"
Beck "rapped" these words in 1996, the artistic apex of "Hotwax," the artistic apex of Odelay, the artistic apex, to date, of Beck's career. These words are evocative, hilarious, intangibly sensual and completely nonsensical. Also -- and this is important -- they rhyme pants with dance. In fact, Beck repeated this miraculous feat during the fadeout of Odelay's very next track, "Lord Only Knows":
"Goin' back to Houston / Do the Hot Dog Dance / Goin' back to Houston / To get me some PANTS"
This indicates how mind-blowing an album Odelay was. This indicates how mind-blowing Beck is capable of being.
He had nothing to lose back then, except the one-hit-wonder badge "Loser" allegedly earned him. Crammed into an elevator with the already crumbling Alt-Rock Nation -- Eddie on the left, Billy on the right, Kurt glaring down disapprovingly from some point above the ceiling -- he moonwalked out on the 13th floor with then-exotic hip-hop overtones (courtesy of Odelay producers the Dust Brothers) and sheer lyrical lunacy. His cup runnethed over with poignant-sounding catchphrases ("Two turntables and a microphone") and catchy phrases that are actually poignant ("You only got one finger left, and it's pointed toward the door"). His videos, "The New Pollution" especially, were beyond belief. He embodied the Superunknown far more thrillingly than Soundgarden ever did.
He rhymed pants with dance.
He's vacillated wildly ever since, strictly alternating between Serious Albums and Goofball Albums. First 1998's Mutations, slinky but somber. Then the following year's profoundly polarizing Midnite Vultures, a ludicrously frivolous house party spraying irony around with fire-hose intensity. Then 2002's dead-serious Sea Change, his heartbroken singer-songwriter lament. These extremes don't necessarily negate one another -- one can adore the pre-"Loser" gem "Satan Gave Me a Taco" and the Sea Change weeper "It's All in Your Mind" in equal measure.
If Beck ever married those impulses himself, of course, major American cities would have to be rebuilt. His latest, alas, will leave your apartment complex sadly intact.
Following the pattern, Guero should be a Goofball Album, especially given the reprisal of the Dust Brothers, who join Beck for the first time since Odelay. But Beck also re-enters the public arena via a massive, ponderous 4,000-word New York Times Magazine profile soberly appraising his legacy, his celebrity circle of friends and lovers, his spiritual resurgence via Scientology. It is imperative that we not let this man become Sting -- a once-deified innovator slowly buffed and sanded and neutered by constant attention from Tracks and Rolling Stone and the other nefarious purveyors of Old People Music. The NYTM headline canonized "Beck at a Certain Age" -- let's keep that age around 14.
A truly inspired 14-year-old would not craft "E-Pro," Guero's leadoff track and improperly chosen first single, with its badass guitar riff (Soundgarden, almost!) and na-na-na-na chorus. Lovely, toe-tappin', KTRU-ready, instantly forgettable. Start over. "Qué Onda Guero" does -- it careens through the Latino Disneyland of Beck's L.A. adolescence, with a bedroom funk beat remarkably similar to Odelay's beloved "Hotwax." But that tune's equally beloved surrealist lyrics are jilted in favor of far more linear imagery -- "See the vegetable man in the vegetable van / With the horn that's honkin' like a mariachi band," Beck "raps," twisting the mariachi like an overzealous Spanish 201 student and sprinkling bilingual chatter about things like taco lettuce. It's actually not a bad tune: a sped-up, tripped-out cousin to Jonathan Richman's wide-eyed international field trips. Just don't try to do the Hot Dog Dance to it.
At times, Guero does feel like the silly-serious hybrid holy grail -- "Girl" mixes eight-bit video game beats and a boisterous Beach Boys chorus with Mars Volta lyrical grit: "I saw her / Yeah I saw her with her hands tied back rags are burnin' / Crawlin' out from a landfill, live / Scrawin' her name upon the ceiling." "Missing" is the obvious Sea Change grad student, continuing Beck's obsession with Gilberto-grade bossa-nova beats as he bellows, "I prayed heaven today / Bring its hammer down on me" in a deep, sonorous, take-me-seriously voice. You do. And "Earthquake Weather" is a phenomenal production feat, a genuine Paul's Boutique artifact, fusing Brazilian guitar to slashing turntablist cuts and kiddie-pop keyboards. The acid-trip sequence in Garden State II: Whine Harder will be scored thus, and it will totally change your life. And then there's "Hell Yes," Guero's obvious Eureka Moment, its bass line oozing cartoon menace, Beck's equally cartoonish hip-hop flow blowing down manholes and up skirts, an unbilled Christina Ricci cooing "Please enjoy" periodically like a giddy geisha girl. Five seconds is all Beck needs to assert total dominance, and this -- and this alone -- asserts, asserts, asserts.
The rest of Guero floats peacefully by, a haze of uneasy white funk groove with vicious bass lines and occasional literary bite -- "Scarecrows only scarin' themselves," Beck chants. "Farewell Ride" reminds you how frequently he intones and deifies old blues singers, forlornly twanging his guitar and snarling, "Two white horses in a line / Take me to my farewell ride." The way Beck transcends genre and mood album by album, track by track, without sounding completely contrived is still unparalleled. And Guero overall doesn't embarrass anyone -- it's solid collectively and even adds a few select tunes to the one-CD Essential Beck Mix pantheon. But within that pantheon itself, "Hotwax" will out-weird them, "Jackass" out-charm them, "Debra" out-sex them, "Lost Cause" out-cry them.
This man's maturation process needs to be impaired, blockaded and ideally halted completely. Guero is a wonderful, innovative, safe album Beck should never make again. As L. Ron Hubbard himself suggested, "Let's get retarded." Get stupid, get ridiculous, get crass, get absurd. Dalí, not Dylan. For I still proudly carry a hyperspecific memory of listening to 1994's "Pay No Mind" while languishing in a Taco Bell drive-thru, guffawing like an idiot when Beck mumbled "Like a giant dildo crushing the sun" as though it were scripture. Because it is, in point of fact, scripture. Please, Satan, sell us another taco.
Beck's Guero will be in stores Tuesday, March 29.
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