By Mark Guarino
“Girl,” a song on the new album from Beck, could be the feel-good hit of summer, 2005. It has all the necessities: ‘80s blips and beeps establishing a dance beat, a strummy acoustic guitar, lyrics that celebrate a “summer girl” inside a chorus that encourages mass singalongs.
There is just one problem and it is this: “Girl” is sung from the perspective of a killer spying his prey, an obnoxious, self-absorbed yuppie, walking down the beach. “I saw her/yeah I saw her,” Beck sings. “ And I know I’m going to make her die/take her where her soul belongs.”
Beck Hanson is a shapeshifter. His previous albums have both mocked and embraced ‘70s funk, Brazilian rhythms, the robot pulse of Kraftwerk, the hypnotic slide guitar of Delta blues and the sly street postures of hip-hop. He is a tricky writer who can make what appears as complete nonsense have deeper meanings but who can also write about heartache with poignant clarity.
His songs have always toyed with collages of words and sounds, but as Beck has gotten older, his focus has become more singular. On “Guero” (Interscope), his eighth album, the subject in the lens is death. But unlike the haunted relationship songs of “Sea Change” (Intersope), from 2002, “Guero” is not as obvious. The listener is forced to dive deep inside the rabbit hole with him and dig through the teasing ear candy to get to the harsh conclusions and scarring images in the songs. It is an album of rewarding complexities, where the most morose subjects are set in motion by funhouse trickery.
The rich sound is courtesy of the Dust Brothers, the L.A. producing duo responsible for “Odelay” (Geffen), Beck’s breakthrough smash from 1996. No Beck album since is as fun to listen to as “Guero.” Disparate sources streamline together at many levels. “Que Onda Guero” is a breezy stroll through a Latin neighborhood, with doses of street conversation dumped throughout and Beck rapping in both Spanish and English. “Hell Yes” is pure robot rock, with its rubbery bassline, harmonica, turntable scratch and a Japanese girl repeatedly telling you to “please enjoy.”
These are all direct reminders of the surreal fun of “Odelay.” But instead of rehashing the same slight of hand, Beck infuses the maturity of his later years. The boogie beat of “Black Tambourine” feels like a sinister snake charm; on “Missing,” strings swirl to a Brazilian beat, a hallucinatory gesture towards the chaos inside the narrator’s head: “I hope the rain doesn’t come/wash me down into the gutter,” he drones.
Beck sings with a matter-of-fact shrug, as if the emotional despair requires such delivery. It helps some of “Guero’s” most unnerving songs including “Farewell Ride.” Singing of “two white horses in a line/carry me to my burial ground,” they could be a funeral procession or lines of cocaine. On a bed of slide guitar and harmonica, Beck manipulates his voice to sound decades older than he really is, an effect that chills.
Despite the description, it might be amusing to note that “Guero” is not directly morose. There are no desperate pleas or emotional hand-wringing typically associated with melancholy songs. The music offers shattering portrayals of urban malaise but with no conclusions. There is just the bounce of the beat, the interruption of street chatter, or the riffing of fuzz guitars, suggesting this is the ride, so get comfortable.