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A Donde Vayas, Guero?: Beck’s Chaotic Dance into Dystopia

written by: on January 5, 2012

It’s slightly derisive Mexican slang for “white boy.” Or someone who is fair-haired, fair-skinned and ungraceful. It was the ninth studio album of one such boy, almost a decade after that high-school-dropout-turned-urban-mystic Beck Hansen sat down with the Dust Brothers to record Odelay (the work still considered his masterpiece) and yet the magic was so tangible it was as if no time had passed at all.

Let us judge an album by its cover: there are disembodied heads used as stools, children in anachronistic military dress, shades of maroon and brown, human puppets and bats. By all appearances, it is a strange and deeply dystopian world. Marcel Dzama, its creator, has since become one of the most omnipresent artists of the new century, a seemingly permanent fixture at MoMA as well as contemporary album covers and music videos since. The cover of Guero stirs malaise with images at once familiar and twistedly bizarre.

Lest the appearance be lingered on too long—the first rollicking distortion of “E-Pro” throws the listener headlong into the world of the album, speeding toward it out of a dark desert, “Hangin’ on to the devil I know/All my troubles I hang on your trigger.” The “na-nah” sensibility of the riff is quickly forgiven by the automatic imagery, the insistent thump of the Beastie’s “So What’cha Want” impelling the groove.

It’s testament to the power of this album that Beck never lets the bitter taste settle, preferring to sink it in further with each successive spoonful. His deadpan, raplike delivery on “Qué Onda Guero,” paired with a glazed and miasmic moan create a strange sunny vibe, “Abuelitas with plastic bags/Walking to the church with the Spanish candles/Dirty boracho says, ‘Que putas!’/Andale, Joto, your popsicle’s melting.” Beck continually mixes the vulgar with the poetic, conversation with monologue the Chicano with the English. Go figure, it gets pretty damn humorous sometimes.

What is the world of Guero? A kind of parallel Los Angeles—rife with vegetable vans, burning skies, military family photo-ops, company missiles and rent-a-cops—a fusion of the digital and the natural. How he manages to convince anyone of such a teeming urban sprawl, a violent melting pot and hazy land of artifice—well, never mind. Hansen buries himself in its existence, dichotomizing everything he sees with surrealist eyes.

The music video for “Girl” offered the first “live-action” view into Guero: the artist donning the familiar olive-green jacket, cruising around the barrio in an El Camino, jamming with mariachis and even joining a picnic featuring a piñata of his likeness. It’s a pretty, lovelorn ditty with a playful bounce to his “sun-eyed” belle. The chorus couplet, “And I know I’m gonna make her die/Take her where her soul belongs,” is so baleful, it might have single-handedly kept the song out of the Top 40. Then again, Beck’s fanciful exposition can turn just about any image on its head. He keeps a sense of irony and self-censorship, any claim of “Make your dreams out of papier mâché,” is quickly followed by, “Cliché wasted, hate taste-tested” (“Hell Yes”).

The Slacker Funk of “Earthquake Weather” is lent a pair of hands from Monkey Mark, who accents the push and pull of the chorus with warped organ slices. “Broken Drum,” the bard’s tribute to Elliot Smith, uses slide acoustic, paired with wistful piano notes and deep-digging distortion to drive its message home, “I’ll never forget you.”

Swirling masses of voices—some comprehensible, others muttering and sinister—surround the songs. The album is loud like a street corner it interjects over its own points. But even when all the bells and whistles cut out and the composition is stripped to its most barebone elements, as with “Go It Alone,” featuring Jack White on bass, there’s still that raw power to it, a soulful wit that’s infectious and absorbing.

Through the driving blues shuffle of “Scarecrow,” the ball-and-chain folk spiritual “Farewell Ride,” there are points where it’s not clear whether the singer is a guero after all. Guero is often compared with Mutations, although really it’s a much more honed sound—the artist combining his many sides as if they were never apart. In effect, it’s an album that synthesizes just about every modern American genre, seeped in a variety Latin styles.

Guero’s titanic influence is attested to by its fans: Beastie Boys, David Lynch, Boards of Canada, Danger Mouse, Air, Pharrell and Diplo, to name a very few. The album has been remixed and remixed and remixed to the extent that Guerolito, its official tribute album, is almost as vital a pressing. Around Guero’s release in 2005, a reimagining seemed to surface every week from some new artist or another—generating no small deal of hype.

Although it hasn’t achieved the status of Odelay or Sea Change, it also doesn’t beg for it. It’s a strange journey, one that’s hard to make sense of, and by the end goes out the “Emergency Exit,” leaving the listener in a place where “it’s a little too much to ask of faith/A little late to wait for fate.” But then, that’s also its supreme beauty. There is no discernable message to Guero, no preaching—just a busy emptiness, an unfathomable amount of information “when darkness has fallen”—where one’s only salvation is to respond with the same chaotic indifference.

Beck – Guero tracklist:

  1. “E-Pro”
  2. “Qué Onda Guero”
  3. “Girl”
  4. “Missing”
  5. “Black Tambourine”
  6. “Earthquake Weather”
  7. “Hell Yes”
  8. “Broken Drum”
  9. “Scarecrow”
  10. “Go It Alone”
  11. “Farewell Ride”
  12. “Rental Car”
  13. “Emergency Exit”