FEATURE: Alternative Classics: Beck - Guero



Alternative Classics


Beck - Guero


I will include some female-made albums...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Beck in Paris in 2005/PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

in this feature but, right now, there is a particular album on my mind – I might include an overlooked Joni Mitchell record in the next instalment. This time around, when thinking of albums that can be seen as alternative classics – the lesser-loved ones that, I feel, are stronger than the best from that artist -, I am compelled to head the way of Beck. When we think of the classic Beck albums then, invariably, we head to Odelay or Sea Change. The former was released in 1996, the latter in 2002: a productive run from Beck where he was not only hitting his stride but able to change course and create albums that sounded different and diverse. When I started this feature, I began by looking at Radiohead and how I feel their album, Hail to the Thief, should be regarded as highly as OK Computer and Kid A. I look at Beck’s career and there is no predicting the man! He has produced recent albums that have switched from the mellower and more relaxed (Morning Phase) to the bright and bold (Colors). There is only three years between the vivacity of Colors (2017) and the epic Morning Phase (2014). I look back at his back catalogue and there hasn’t really been a long period of time where he has produced average albums: everything Beck comes up with is interesting and deserves merit. Sea Change received a lot of praise when it arrived in 2002 because it was not as experimental and wild as Odelay and saw Beck step into new territory.


Guero arrived in 2005 and, once more, was another change of direction. Maybe it was the shape-shifting and unpredictable nature of Beck that caught some critics off by the time Guero rocked around. When we think of Beck at his polemic best, we look at the vivid and insane movements of Odelay and then contrast those with Sea Change and Morning Phase. I would contend that, if you want the best of Beck’s diversity in a single album then you need to consider Guero. It is never regarded as highly as the critically-esteemed and many overlook it altogether. When it was released, Guero was met with praise because it was a sort of return to the sounds of Odelay. Some have been a bit lukewarm and consider it inferior to Odelay. Dust Brothers (The Chemical Brothers) helped produce alongside Tony Hoffer and, right throughout, you get this clash of styles. There is Brazilian influence – we had heard some of this in Mutations (1998) but there was Hispanic lust and language; Electronic stabs and Country-tinged mournfulness. Some might feel an album so varied and eclectic might lose focus but, rather than push too much into single songs, it is the album as a whole that is varied. You get different shades in individual numbers but you are never struggling to keep up and take it all in. Urgent singles like E-Pro saw Beck ride this guitar crunch and wave; Girl has looping and swooping guitars whereas Hell Yes is a sort of oddity that one would imagine coming from the future – one of the most interesting songs he has produced to date!

After the rush and pummel of E-Pro comes Qué Onda Guero. There is such a shift in sound between the two songs that it is like stepping into another world! It is great to see Girl has gained such a big reputation. Beck has performed it countless times and it often appears in his sets. It basically relies on acoustic guitars and drums but it is the way the sounds clash and the composition of the song that really gets to me. The track stops and starts; it swoons and flies and has this real hypnotic charm. The accompanying video gives the song new life and layers and it is definitely one of the standouts. After three songs, we have experienced three completely different pieces but, as a whole, they hang together well. Missing, like Earthquake Weather and Farewell Ride, is Beck at his more contemplative and mature. These slower and more meditative songs hold enormous power. My favourite of the trio is Earthquake Weather because I adore the composition and think it is this cinematic piece that truly immerses you. I know Odelay had some slower and different-paced numbers but Guero is perfectly planned and programmed so that you get these natural emotional shifts. After the haunt and emotion of Missing, again, we get another angle: the shimmering and shaking Black Tambourine. I am not sure whether there is deep meaning in the song – aside from Beck rattling his tambourine – but is a truly spellbinding number that gets you wiggling!

I love the groan and dance of the track but, as you’d expect, there is another sonic evolution when we reach Earthquake Weather and Hell Yes. By the time you get to the middle of the album, so much has been presented and so many different sounds have emerged! Earthquake Weather is, to me, one of the best things Beck has done. I love everything about it and would encourage people to seek it out. Beck didn’t plan on doing any rapping on Guero but the Dust Brothers encouraged him. It is sort of tongue-in-cheek and is filled with the usual array of weird and wonderful images. It is beck’s lyrics that truly make every song shine. The production is wonderful and assured throughout but Beck creates, on Guero, his most assured, rich and interesting set of songs. I love his classic albums but feel Guero is the man at his very peak. Even if Guero is a little top-middle-heavy, you cannot fault a few of the later tracks. Broken Drum is another one of those stormy tracks that is different to anything else and helps tell this bigger story. One of the standout moments from Guero is Jack White playing bass on Go It Alone. His melody, rhythm and power elevates the track and, with a fine vocal from Beck, we get this incredible song that could only come from the master. Words flow like a waterfall and it is dizzying taking everything in!

If the hero of the album, the pale-skinned, blonde Beck (that is what guero translate into English as: a pale-skinned/blonde-haired person; a slang term) was breaking away from a golden period and distinct style, he was taking risks and making some of the best music of his life. Following albums, The Information (2006) and Modern Guilt (2008) were packed with hits but didn’t resonate with critics as hard as the golden Beck albums such as Odelay and Mutations. I mentioned how there was some positivity and, largely, there was warmth thrown the way of Beck. The musician was definitely entering a new phase of life but, as AllMusic point out here, his vision and talent was as strong as ever:

Instead, it sounds as if Beck, now a husband and father in his mid-thirties, is revisiting his older aesthetic and sensibility from a new perspective. The sound has remained essentially the same -- it's still a kaleidoscopic jumble of pop, hip-hop, and indie rock, with some Brazilian and electro touches thrown in -- but Beck is a hell of a lot calmer, never indulging in the lyrical or musical flights of fancy or the absurdism that made Mellow Gold and Odelay such giddy listens. He now operates with the skill and precision of a craftsman, never dumping too many ideas into one song, paring his words down to their essentials, mixing the record for a wider audience than just his friends...

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Consequently, Guero never is as surprising or enthralling as Odelay, but Beck is also not trying to be as wild and funny as he was a decade ago. He's shifted away from exaggerated wackiness -- which is good, since it wouldn't wear as well on a 34 year old as it would on a man a decade younger -- and concentrated on the record-making, winding up with a thoroughly enjoyable LP that sounds warm and familiar upon the first play and gets stronger with each spin. No, it's not a knockout, the way his first few records were, but it's a successful mature variation on Odelay, one that proves that Beck's sensibility will continue to reap rewards for him as he enters his second decade of recording”.

Pitchfork were a little less sure and convinced that Beck has created something masterful. They note a sense of calculation and identity crisis, perhaps:

All in all, my assessment of the patient's recent advances is a mixed one. Mr. Hansen has certainly attempted to follow the regimen recommended to him, and has done his best to recapture earlier moments of lucidity and unity, but in many ways the final result feels rote and calculated. It seems likely that what worked for the subject almost ten years ago may not be appropriate at this later stage; in today's landscape, the methods seem a bit obsolete and over-prescribed. Mr. Hansen may have given us what we demanded, but, at this juncture, we should consider that his personalities have drifted so far apart that they are better left that way”.

I agree there is less surprise and organic-ness than there was on Odelay but I cannot agree Guero is rote and calculated. I think Beck was changing and growing older but he was not going to abandon his sense of wonder and the spectacular to calm things right down. He does balance the youthful and mature but there is never a sense it is forced and trying to please everyone. Guero, I feel, is as strong as Odelay because there is so much to discover and you never quite know what you’re going to get! There was no predicting Beck and, as this Udiscovermusic piece showed, Guero fared well and can hold its head high:

“To this day, the record remains the artist’s highest-ranked album on the Billboard 200, where it debuted at No. 2. It arrived some two and a half years after the emotionally introspective Sea Change, Beck’s second collaboration with British producer Nigel Godrich. After that, a line was drawn in the sand: now he was ready for another musical shift of gears, and for something that sounded both gregarious and grown-up. 

Emphasising how Beck’s popularity had now spread far and wide around the world, Guero hit the top five in Denmark and Norway, the top 15 in the UK and Australia, and made healthy chart showings everywhere from Finland to France. Guero went on to double platinum status in the US, and gold in Canada. 


Countless other publications sang the album’s praises. “A mouth-watering feast of beats and grooves,” purred the UK’s Uncut magazine. “As welcome as anything he’s done.” Stylus raved: “We have our urban craftsman back, to stir the dust in sampled record grooves and unearth for us, again and again, the new in the old and vice versa.”

The New York Times sensed the maturity developing in this set of songs when it avowed that “Where his previous albums have seesawed between comedy and despair, Guero comes closer than ever to merging them.” The NME wrote that Guero represents a very clever man being clever enough to recognise what he’s good at,” and Rolling Stone were even more succinct, calling the record “his liveliest and jumpiest music in years.”

For his own part, Beck played down the element of creative unpredictability. “I just go in with some vague idea or no idea at all,” he told Billboard. “You’re just putting yourself on the spot on a daily basis”.

Maybe most people do not think of Beck’s Guero as a classic. I feel, like Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, we need to look at the album with fresh ears and give it fresh appreciation. Very few of the thirteen tracks fail – maybe the final, Emergency Exit – and there are so many different sounds and genres working together. If you want a more mature and controlled Beck then there are at least four or five songs that do that; if you want more electric and out-there songs then there is enough in there. I guess Guero is not a concept album but you can detect recurring themes a general arc. It is a bold and brilliant album that, nearly fourteen years after its release, sounds completely fresh and revealing. If you have not heard the album before then make sure you rectify that and discover Beck at...

PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

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