Toward the end of "Qué Onda Guero," the second track on Beck's Guero, the giggly, Latin-accented voices that have drifted in the back of the mix throughout the song start naming names. One shouts out "Michael Bolton," another references "a new Yanni cassette." Parse the levels of irony: Is Beck making fun of easy targets? Is he mocking those who get off on attacking easy targets? Is it a comment on how stereotypes work on both sides of the cultural divide? (The title means "Where are you going, white boy?") Who knows? Beck has always been hesitant to give listeners solid ground, but that's seldom mattered, particularly on albums like Odelay, when the lyrics played into the music's cut-and-paste approach. When he got more direct on delicate outings like Mutations and Sea Change, his past obtuseness only intensified the impact.
So why, for so much of Guero, does the usual "who knows?" feel like "who cares?" Maybe it's because Guero finds Beck repeating himself for the first time. Among recent artists, only Radiohead rivals him in the creative miles traveled from debut to current state. Guero unwisely attempts a victory lap, reuniting Beck with Dust Brothersthe production team behind Odelay and the underrated white-soul exercise Midnite Vulturesas well as Tony Hoffer (also of Midnite Vultures), and cycling through discarded styles. "E-Pro" kicks the album off with what could be an Odelay castoff, all inescapable beats, cryptic phrases, and "na na na" choruses. "Missing" picks up the tropicalia strands of "Mutations." "Hell Yes" pairs the funk of Vultures with a cranky lyric about the expectations of hit-making, segueing into "Broken Drum," a dead ringer for a Sea Change B-side.
The repetition wouldn't matter so much if the songs were as good as before. But while Guero isn't exactly an exercise in whatever-worked-before wheels-grinding (like, say, all but the first two Oasis albums) it also contains nothing startling or exciting, particularly by Beck standards. Instead, it sounds like a shadow greatest-hits album, a collection of also-rans offering intriguing variations on past styles. It sounds okay, sometimes even better than okay, but it doesn't stir much passion, unlike even the most irony-entrenched Beck albums of the past.