Once upon a time, the greatest rock-and-rollers seemed capable of returning to their trademark styles as to a fountain of youth -- which is exactly what Johnny Cash did when he performed a folk-to-rockabilly set in a small club at the South by Southwest music festival in 1994, introducing his American Recordings rebirth to the music press in attendance. As it happened, a gangling, rosy-cheeked newcomer hit the stage right afterward, taking the evening one step beyond, with an unprecedented mix of folk-to-punk-to-you-name-it.
For those who were there, the coincidental pairing of Cash and Beck was like a postmodern fun-house version of Cash uniting with Bob Dylan in the late '60s. But Beck's latest album suggests that his brash style is not limitless. Deftly co-produced by the Dust Brothers, Guero reconnects the one-time loser with the cheesy funk, bright-eyed pop, hipster's barrio slang, disjointed sonic experimentation, and goony white-boy raps that made him a major winner in alt-rock's hazy last days, all without forsaking the forthrightly lush and melancholy turn that his music took on 1998's Mutations and 2002's Sea Change. Yet it's hard to think of another quintessential album from a notable talent that has felt so inconsequential -- it suggests that Beck was always better at trendy amalgamation than timeless invention. In short: When you're hot, you're hot; but when you're not, you can't ask for a more honorable showcase than Guero -- and maybe a sold-out, modest-sized venue in which to relive the fantasy of forever.