There are some who believe that, in pop music, wilful eclecticism is a good thing. That hopping from style to style is the way to make great records. These people are wrong. Eclecticism is the enemy of pop music. Stylistic magpies do not make great records, experimentalism is not a good thing (experiments are for nerds), bands should never try to branch out and ‘explore new directions’ (there’s a reason why your fans like you, doofus). The best pop music has always been made by groups who choose their path and then pursue it with pathological determination. Think Nirvana, The Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, Abba, the Manics. And then, by way of contrast, think of smug tosspots from They Might Be Giants to Black Eyed Peas to Neil Hannon, and of how shit The Beatles were when they discovered sitars.
Of course, another thing that’s true in pop is that there’s always one exceptional motherfucker who proves any rule, and in this case, Beck is that motherfucker. A man who has turned his hand to alt-country, trip-hop, old skool electro and pretty much anything else you care to mention, and who has almost always come up with something approximating The Goods and The Very Good Indeeds. The great news is that 75 per cent of Guero is pitched in the latter camp – the Dust Brothers on production gives the majority of the material a satisfyingly fat hip-hop chassis upon which Beck gets to tinker, and he’s always happiest when he gets to act the bad-ass.
The opener, ’E-Pro’, is a gleeful example of the return of the big-assed hip-hop slambeat to Beck’s world – the breakbeat it rides is positively monolithic, as are the slug-trails of ugly, distorted (ie brilliant) metal riffs that Beck smears all over it. The latin-inflected ’Qué Onda Guero’ is more of the similar, magnificently hefty in the low-end department, possibly the most overtly hip-hop track Beck has ever done and it’s a corker. As is Black Tambourine, a murky funk workout that calls to mind the likes of ’70s afro-jazzers like Chakachas and Funk Inc.. ’Scarecrow’ is even more dark and sprawling – seven minutes of electro-blues that build in momentum while disembodied voices float under the surface like ghosts in the multi-track. Third-best of all (medal places later, folks) is ’Hell Yes’, a magnificently leonine slinkathon that reaches Snoop Dogg levels of swagger, despite the fact that it interpolates with what may be a snatch of ’The Birdie Song’.
It’s not all good, and when Beck strays from those areas that he’s most comfortable in, things get grating. ’Girl’ is an insubstantial essay in ’60s tweeness and the formless ’Earthquake Weather’ skates so close to trip-hop that it could practically high-five James Lavelle on its way past.
Without a doubt, Beck’s powers are resolutely threefold – hip-hop, soul and sweaty ’70s rock – and these disciplines combine to make ‘Guero’’s two highlights. ’Go It Alone’ is a combination of the first and the last – prime ZZ Top given a hefty jeep-beat undercarriage. And the giddy, freewheeling ’Rental Car’ is its diametric opposite – a riot of snake-hipped Farfisa organs and rapturous “yeah, yeah, yeah”s.
In pop, there’s nothing big and clever about being clever, but ’Guero’ represents a very clever man being clever enough to recognise what he’s good at. Keep on, brother, keep on.