Although a dozen years have passed since Beck Hansen first entered our lives, the man remains an enigma. We know he's a Scientologist; based on his last album, 2002's Sea Change, we also know his breakup with a longtime girlfriend pretty much bummed him out. Beyond that, the inner workings of his brain, as revealed on record and in interviews, are still a mystery. Further adding to the puzzle, Guero hardly finds Beck publicly reveling in his new roles as husband and father. Six songs mention death or graves, another two seem to be anger-setting-in follow-ups to Sea Change's dejected ballads, and another could easily be about a mass murderer.
Whereas the monochromatic, self-consciously ''sad'' Sea Change felt dispassionate, Guero is, thankfully, alive and frisky. It's his most inviting, least off-putting work in years. Since both his old hip-hop beats and former collaborators the Dust Brothers are back, it's tempting to call the album a return to the land of Odelay. But it's more than that: Guero is the first record on which the many moods and sides of Beck coexist, and it's about time.
The album also manages to be simultaneously familiar and new. Foreboding, vaguely apprehensive slide-guitar shuffles like ''Farewell Ride'' and ''Emergency Exit'' hark back to the pinebarren blues and folk of One Foot in the Grave, but add grandeur. The affectless bossa nova grooves of ''Missing'' and ''Earthquake Weather'' recall moments on Mutations, but without the campiness. The gringo-in-the-barrio jaunt of ''Qué Onda Guero,'' all street sounds and mariachi horns, conjures a more mature Mellow Gold. Only ''Hell Yes,'' an electro novelty that plays like a Midnite Vultures reject, is a rehash we didn't need to hear. Other tracks are injected with a newfound spareness. In ''E-Pro'' (one of the rare songs in his catalog in which he sounds ticked off, seemingly over unspecified gossip) and the tribal ''Black Tambourine,'' he pares everything down to jungle drumbeats, scuzz-throb guitars, and not much else and sounds newly energized for it.
Relatively speaking we're still talking Beck here Guero also has a slightly broader emotional range than past records. He's goofy (''Rental Car''), sullen (''Missing,'' where he admits, ''I can't believe these tears were mine''), and spooky (the delicious summer-breeze pop of ''Girl,'' which may be the musings of a serial killer). Yet in the end, Beck remains as inscrutable as ever, and it's probably best that way. Whether it's because he's too private or too shallow, he's never been convincing in traditional roles like balladeer or R&B loverman. He's best when the only rules he follows are his own, baffling as they may be. When Guero ends, we don't know this elusive man-child any better than we once did. But we have a lot more fun than we've had in a while trying to figure him out.