Beck’s reputation as a singles artist is vastly overrated. His career was jumpstarted by “Loser” more than a decade ago, and that would have been thrown in the “Inside Out” and “Sex and Candy” one-hit-wonder bin if Beck hadn’t come back two years later with the ubiquitous “Where It’s At.” The other singles from Odelay, his 1996 breakthrough, vacillated between strange triumph (“Devil’s Haircut”) and the oddly indefensible (“New Pollution” remains one of Beck’s least-likable pieces). But even Beck’s most loyal defenders must admit that his subsequent radio stabs — the vaguely irritating “Tropicalia” from Mutations and the criminally forgotten “Sexx Laws” from Midnite Vultures — were barely up to snuff. Sea Change, Beck’s “I broke up with Winona Ryder” album, was such a bummer that no track even touched the airwaves.

Jess Cox
Play that funky music, white boy.
(Courtesy of Interscope)

Still, for an artist who hasn’t released a truly great single since the Democrats had their shit together, Beck looms large on the modern rock radar screen. So how could the executives at Interscope screw up choosing the first single from Beck’s latest album, Guero (Latin-American slang for “white boy”)? “E-Pro” kicks open the doors with a jaunty guitar riff, but the rest of the song — a mashup of Beck’s sing-rap and a chorus that repeats the lyrical gem “Na na na na na na na” — is the album’s weakest moment. This happens at a time when radio singles are once again viable artistic expressions, mostly thanks to musical hip-hop producers like The Neptunes and Kanye West, as well as a nearly unprecedented onslaught of underground rock.

It’s frustrating that listeners’ first impression of Guero will be “E-Pro” and not the smash-hit-in-waiting “Qué Onda Guero.” A brilliant combination of salty horns, lazy rap verses and L.A. street sounds, it’s Beck’s most immediately likable song since “Where It’s At,” and the only possible justification for leaving it off the airwaves is that there’s a decent chance that it’ll be twice as good when the mercury passes the 80-degree marker.

He’s back then, right? The culture-mashing Beck of yore, the postmodern guru of genre splicing and white-boy rapping? Here’s the lazy review, if you must: Guero is a nice Beck primer, combining the best aspects of all prior releases. “Hell Yes” could’ve been on Midnite Vultures, “Girl” on Odelay and “Missing” on Sea Change. It’s Beck reconnecting with the diverse Southern California culture in which he grew up. Beck is so great because he fits, like, jazz and folk and pop and rap into the same song! Yawn.

In truth, Guero is a monumentally difficult album to evaluate. While it’s true that Guero incorporates elements of Beck’s “traditional” work, it’s also true that he has never doubled back on himself before, making the notion of “traditional Beck” basically bullshit. Sonically, he’s probably not going to wow anyone with this record — it’s not as consistent as Mutations nor as addictively neurotic as Odelay. He’s still fucking around with genre concepts, adding Middle Eastern string sections to tropical percussion sections on “Missing,” rock guitar riffing to old-soul backbeat on “Go It Alone.” But where Odelay shocked listeners into acceptance, Guero smoothly and precisely puts the puzzle pieces together. The production team The Dust Brothers returns here, and while their presence is felt in the gangster lean intro to “Earthquake Thunder” or the new-wave blips on “Girl,” their impact is less drastic.

Yet it’s tough to suggest — and harder to accept — that Beck just sort of ended up somewhere in the middle. Parts of Guero hint that we haven’t heard the last of the sad, boring Beck, and there’s enough ramshackle hip hop to bring party Beck to mind. Even worse, several songs incorporate the weird, baritone vocal tick that epitomized Sea Change: Beck wails in the distance, seemingly disconnected from the music. “Missing” actually contains the line, “The guns in her mind aim a line / Straight at mine / To a heart that was broke.” Ugh.

But for most of the album, Beck reminds everyone why he’s such a diverse musical force. “Black Tambourine” bristles with low-key sexual energy. “Rental Car” is a dancey Brit pop tour de force. “Emergency Exit” ends the album with a ghastly old-world stomp. And again, if “Qué Onda Guero” isn’t a huge summer smash, then it’s time to give up on your fellow man.

Beck has never released anything as banal as a “transitional” album — his impulses arrive too quickly and too completely — and very little here gives clues to his future directions. In the past, Beck has followed each of his albums with its polar opposite, sonically and thematically, and Guero is troubling partly because it feels more like a self-contained entity than one side of a Beck-coin. It is still, however, an interesting, accomplished album that’s both playful and artistic. If it doesn’t predict what’s coming next, then it’s a fitting summation of what’s going on now. And no one should blame Beck for that.

Music Review: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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