Worth listening to: Beck

Throughout his remarkable recording career, Beck Hansen has embraced many roles as a musician: lo-fi indie slacker, pop-culture miner, noise rocker, R&B loverman, and on his most recent outing ? 2002?s [ITAL]Sea Change/IATL]? heartbroken balladeer. Admired by critics and hipsters alike, his abstract lyricism and range of musical styles have produced a body of work characterized by a steadfast refusal to settle into a single style for long. With this week?s release of his latest effort, [ITAL]Guero/ITAL], however, Beck for the first time seems to have settled into the role of simply being Beck. The result is an album that, while not quite on par with his groundbreaking mid-?90s masterpieces, is still a fine listen full of the stylistic changes that have kept Beck at the forefront of alternative pop for over a decade.

For [ITAL]Guero/ITAL], Beck has reunited with production team the Dust Brothers, the duo responsible for his acclaimed 1996 Odelay disc. More than anything, this move signifies that Beck is perhaps for the first time aiming for a return to form; though, for an artist who embraces so many different styles, pinning that form down is somewhat difficult.

Though not as sample-happy as some of the Dust Brothers? previous efforts, the beats are memorable and bring a welcome energy to the proceedings. In terms of the flow and overall vibe of the album, [ITAL]Guero/ITAL] does resemble Odelay to some extent, at least more so than his other albums. Still, there are almost 10 years between the two, and [ITAL]Guero/ITAL] is predictably less wacky and far-flung, and more earnest than Odelay.

From the outset Beck establishes that, rather than the thematic consistency of his last few records, eclecticism will rule the day on [ITAL]Guero/ITAL]. Opening track and lead single ?E-Pro? is a straight-ahead guitar rocker that rides along on the formidable beat from the Beastie Boys? ?So What?cha Want? and an irresistible ?na na na na? chorus. From there, Beck settles into the relaxed Latin-inflected groove of ?Qu? Onda Guero,? which finds our hero roaming around L.A. and narrating in Spanglish stream-of-consciousness. It?s by far the most fun track on the CD, vividly painting a picture of the scene in the listener?s mind. The wistful pop-rock of ?Girl? (complete with a Nintendo-influenced intro) then melts into the melancholy shuffle of ?Missing? and the pulsating ?Black Tambourine.? It?s an inviting suite of diverse songs that still mesh well together and, just as importantly, showcase Beck?s solid songwriting. The rest of the album follows a similar blueprint, though the overall mood becomes less spirited as the record progresses.

Working with the Dust Brothers clearly brings out the best in Beck on [ITAL]Guero/ITAL]. The tracks ?Broken Drum? and ?Farewell Ride,? which address losing a friend and his own mortality, respectively, were written and recorded without their assistance and are easily the low points of an otherwise consistent record. Though the second half is a little flatter than the first, a few hidden gems do await patient listeners. An inspired collaboration with the White Stripes? Jack White, ?Go It Alone,? is perhaps the album?s highlight. Ever the minimalist, White contributes a dirty bass riff over a loping hip-hop beat (plus handclaps!) that, along with Beck?s layered vocals, compose the entire track. Apparently, White will only perform on songs featuring two or fewer instruments, but the approach is effective here. The penultimate track, ?Rental Car,? with its driving classic-rock chorus and nonsense female vocal break, shows up in time to add some spice to the proceedings. Still, by the time the album closes with the reflective ?Emergency Exit,? some of the highlights of the disc may have already been forgotten.

Beck has mellowed a bit in his old age ? it?s telling that no random noise is hidden after the final song on [ITAL]Guero/ITAL] as in previous efforts ? but his creativity and record-making skills are still ahead of most artists?. The main flaw of Guero is simply the high standards set by Beck?s remarkable back catalog, where even an album as intriguing and diverse as this can seem a little dated. Ten years from now, [ITAL]Guero/ITAL] will still have a welcome place in my record collection next to Odelay and Mellow Gold, but it?s doubtful it will be pulled from the shelf quite as often as they will.