Beck's career has slipped into a kind of vacillation between albums in his signature folk-hop style and more introvert undertakings such as Mutations and Sea Change, where he and the producer Nigel Godrich attempt to present the musical magpie as a more straightforward singer-songwriter in the mould of Neil Young or Jackson Browne.
Why they would want to do that when Beck's original style is so much more engaging is a mystery, but I for one am delighted he has left behind the melancholy musings of Sea Change to hook up again with the Dust Brothers production team of John King and Mike Simpson for Guero. The results recall their earlier sample-tastic success with Odelay, with judicious blends of beats, riffs, songs and raps spiralling off in a variety of directions, with no noticeable shortfall in coherence. The single "E-Pro" opens proceedings with a muscular fuzz-guitar groove that's the catchiest thing Beck has done since the anthems "Where It's At" and "Devil's Haircut" - and like the latter, at least, its lyric seems fairly impervious to rational analysis, relying on the "nah-nah-nah-nah" refrain to hook the listeners.
From there, Beck darts around the musical map like an animated flea, springing from the low-riding chicano funk of "Que Onda Guero" to the summery pop of "Girl" and the itchy bossa nova of "Missing", whose infectious Tropicalismo tone is streaked with Eastern-flavoured strings orchestrated by Beck's father, the arranger David Campbell. The song's reflections on the essential patchwork incompleteness of life - "Something always takes the place of missing pieces/ You can take and put together/ Even though you know there's something missing" - are no less applicable to his own work, which typically makes unorthodox wholes from diverse fragments.
Examples are legion here: the gulp of harmonica, breakbeat drums, babble and scratch that form the groove of "Hell Yes"; the lolloping, late-period Sly Stone-style groove of "Go It Alone", in which furtive electric piano peeks out tentatively from behind Jack White's limber bassline; the bang-in-fashion Eighties indie stylings of "Send a Message to Her"; and the darker combination of piano and bottleneck guitar in "Broken Drum". Most impressive of all is the engaging mélange of choogling clavinet and squally lead guitar that is "Earthquake Weather".
Death casts its cadaverous shadow over a few tracks, most notably the sombre "Farewell Ride", as Beck contemplates his own departure, with "Two white horses in a line/ Carry[ing] me to my burying ground". For all the superior production standards, it's a sentiment that could have come off 1994's hip-hop-folk-blues oddity One Foot in the Grave, suggesting that Beck's character remains essentially unchanged by a decade of success.
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