The greatest trick Beck every pulled was getting people to think there was reason—much less meaning—in his squishy beats and word stir-fries. Over seven albums the human musical Cuisinart has tried on more stylish surfaces than a drag queen. Problem was he always sounded nervously hyper self-aware of the facades: all hooks, no bait to bite into.
He doesn’t change anything for Guero, though maturity focuses his collages. Beck hasn’t sounded this goofily relaxed since his 1994 debut, and now irony’s wink doesn’t color everything into hammy in-jokes. Odelay alumni the Dust Brothers reprise their roles as Mike Nichols to Beck’s Elaine May, and Guero bubbles through every Beckian genre curry to date: clunky bedroom funk (“Girl”), percolating Os Mutantes pop (“Missing”), trip-hopped skiffle (“Black Tambourine”), sunny wallpaper (“Earthquake Weather”), psychedelic rap (“Hell Yes”), folkie microhouse (“Broken Drum”), “Billie Jean” quotation-turned-talking blues (“Scarecrow”), jam-band sadcore (“Go It Alone”), and sunbaked SoCal highway rock (“Rental Car”).
Guero sounds like everything he’s done before, but ragging on Beck for being derivative is like scolding water for being wet. Beck’s eye-rolling voice has never flirted with sincerity, and he wisely twists his lyrical games into engaging songwriting. He drolly drops “makin’ their dreams out of papier-mâché/ cliché wasted hate taste tested” in “Hell Yes,” and it lands like a sideways dis at everyone waiting for another Midnite Vultures. Elsewhere, he distills soft poignancy from trite metaphor (“takin’ me as far as a rental car can go,” “Rental Car”) and glimpses mortality in slant rhyme (“I don’t hear the/ mission bells I don’t smell/ the morning roses all I see/ is all I see,” “Farewell Ride”). In the giddy, infectious “Qué Onda Guero” he deadpans, “Here comes the vegetable man in the/ vegetable van with the horn that’s honking/ like a mariachi band”—a line that winningly spotlights Beck’s youthful verbal flurry turned grown-up songwriter. And Guero feels like a whimsical musical testament to the difference between being in your mid-20s and mid-30s: knowing the pointlessness of “cool.”