Aside from a recent admission in the New York Times magazine that he's now a practicing Scientologist, do any true lovers of inspired music have rightful cause to dislike the junk-drawer surrealism of Beck Hanson? Tough to say. After all, whom else in the current pop-music cannon do we know with a résumé this well-rounded? Sonic collage artist, modern-day folkie, ironic embezzler of hip-hop culture; as a shrewd urban chronicler, Beck is most clearly his grandfather's grandson (legendary Fluxus artist Al Hanson, in case you're keeping score). In other words, not only has Beck's best work held up a bright mirror to the post-meta, media-savvy culture in which much of the West now exists, it has also commented on it wryly -- often with tongue planted firmly in cheek (Mellow Gold, Odelay) but also -- occasionally -- with seeming earnestness (Sea Change).
Although earnestness, come to think of it, has always been Beck's most slippery attribute. Case in point: "Loser," the early-'90s slacker-anthem that first brought Beck into America's living room. Was it an inside joke? Was he serious? Tough to say. And also completely beside the point for anyone who listened to rest of the album, or the one after that, or the one after that. With the Dust Brothers' flawless production and an ever-present mélange of psychedelica, bossa nova, classic country, funk, punk and nonsense-poetry lyrics, the success or failure of a Beck record has never hinged on anything weighty, like intellectualism, or for that matter, sincerity. After all, who cares whether Beck has a Peter Pan complex, or whether he takes his career seriously, as long as he keeps making music this good?
But with Guero, a barefaced return to Beck's cosmic-slacker era, all that changes. That's because Guero is something of a post-meta album itself. Or maybe it's just lazily self-referential. Either way, there's no escaping the fact that many of these songs sound like Beck covering Beck. Guero even includes a suspiciously familiar series of choruses and production tricks which so clearly harken back to Beck's glory days that you may find yourself double-checking the disc's title.
For those of you who couldn't find yourselves caring less about such things, however, rest assured that bits of Guero do provide some small solace. A few of these tracks, "Girl" and "Earthquake Weather" especially, are irresistible small wonders of dance-pop brilliance. And much of the album is at least dense and deeply layered enough to insist on the need for repeated spins. Guero might not suggest growth, but it does suggest something. Confidence? Convalescence? Tough to say.