Maybe it’s the barrio cacophony, or maybe it’s the giant nightstick mounted above his head, but Beck is reminded of his childhood in a Latino section of East Los Angeles. “Growing up,” he points out, “the LAPD helicopters were always flying around my neighborhood shining those giant spotlights in our windows.” Beck moved away long ago, but he’s never completely shaken the Latin flavor of his early years. Part of the chorus of “Loser” is sung in Spanish. A considerable chunk of Mutations sways to the soothing castanet rhythms of tropicalia. The title track of Guero—Spanish slang for “white boy”—is a buckshot blast of found sounds, funky backbeats, and vinyl scratches built around Beck’s mumbled tour of his old stomping grounds. Throughout the song, a Latino voice gently chides the singer, just like in the old days. Unlike in the old days, that same voice hands out big ups to Michael Bolton. Beck admits that “it got a little absurdist.” Which is just what we’ve come to expect from the wordsmith who once summed up the pleasures of a major-label deal this way: “Sales climb high through the garbage-pail sky/ Like a giant dildo crushing the sun.”

After seven albums of wide-ranging brilliance brought him icon status, maybe the smartest move Beck could have made was to revisit his past. In a sense, that’s what he’s done with Guero, which buzzes with the same hallucinogenic kitchen-sink experimentation that marked Odelay. His reunion with the Dust Brothers and his return as the poppin’-and-lockin’ good-time kid are welcome, especially after the funeral-dirge doldrums of Sea Change.

“It’s sort of where Odelay left off, but I don’t think you could criticize it as being more of the same,” Simpson says. “It’s got a totally different vibe and sounds a bit more futuristic. When the three of us work together, it’s hard to predict what’s going to come out.”

What almost didn’t come out was any of Beck’s rasping, free-associating raps. With his goofy, stumbling delivery, he never tried to pass himself off as Jay-Z. Still, he began to wonder if the right to rhyme extended to guys like him. “I didn’t want to feel like I was cheapening the form,” Beck says. “I honestly wanted that stuff to sound as cool as Busta Rhymes or old Public Enemy or Eazy-E. I thought maybe it was time to lay it to rest.”

Simpson and the other Dust Brother, John King, disagreed, but it took Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich, to persuade Beck to rock the mike once again. (Godrich is a longtime Beck confidant; they worked together on Sea Change and Mutations and, according to Simpson, are once again weaving lo-fi magic.) “He told me that was his favorite stuff of mine by far, which was a surprise,” Beck says. “That changed the way I looked at it.”