“Where you goin’, white boy?” Beck asks on “Que Onda Guero” from his eighth full-length, Guero. We’re tempted to ask the same. Since releasing the generation-defining Mellow Gold in 1994, Mr. Hansen has flirted with just about every pop idiom on this blue earth — from bluegrass to disco, butt-rock to space-rock. He’s like that old friend of yours from high school who’s got a new hobby every time you bump into to him, collecting comics one day, climbing mountains the next. However brilliant Beck’s records may have been, all that back ‘n’ forth makes it hard to take him seriously (hey, remember who lost the election in November), despite the fact that he may have single-handedly inserted the word “collage” into the pop-music lexicon.
Guero’s real surprise, then, is how recognizable it is. It’s no coincidence that opener “E-Pro” explodes in a riff as ballsy as Odelay’s own first riff — and that was nine years ago. Tunes likes “Rental Car” proves the kid’s in love with pastiche again. The Dust Brothers bring their thrift-store beats, Beck brings his cosmopolitan folkie shtick, and you get pop Pangaea. “Hell Yes” is everything and nothing simultaneously. It neatly compacts decades of pop culture like it’s taking out the trash on a balmy evening in the Hollywood hills. Although it’s thrilling, so much of Guero, like most of Beck’s output, keeps you at a distance, grinning and marveling. No one’s baring his soul or breaking hearts. Beck’s not even breaking much of sweat.
Brief moments recall the startling honesty of 2002’s Sea Change — the dreamy “Little Drum” and the farewell march of “Farewell Ride” — but Guero remains defiantly fun(ny). But we shouldn’t chide Beck for doing what he does best. Unpredictability and creativity are rare traits in and of themselves, but for one white boy to have both is worth all the turntables and microphones in Los Angeles.