April 04, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Na-na, na na na na na!” sang Beck back in February at a secret show in Hollywood, as he tore through ”E-Pro,” the good-times first single off his fast-paced new album, Guero. For the rest of the set, culled mostly from Guero, Beck clapped, rapped, whaled on his guitar, and even scratched some turntable. For the encore, he danced on stage with a frizzy-haired Jon Lovitz-meets-Ron Jeremy lounge-singer type named Har Mar Superstar, who, opening for Beck two hours earlier, had dug into his pants and then flicked his genital sweat at an amused yet definitely grossed-out audience.

It was fun. It was also a far cry from the last time we saw Beck on stage. That was during the tour for Sea Change, his 2002 album of slow and aching electro-Hank Williamsy heartache songs, which detailed Beck’s obviously agonizing breakup with longtime girlfriend Leigh Limon. Naturally, as Guero suggests, Beck’s moved on. He is ”na na na”-ing now. And that was the plan all along. ”One of the few things I remember Beck saying early on,” recalls Mike Simpson, who helped produce the album, ”was that he just wanted some rocking songs that he could play live.”

Simpson is one of two Dust Brothers, who also assembled Beck’s 1996 mixed-genre masterpiece, Odelay. Guero, like Odelay, commingles hip-hop, the blues, rock, and a million other styles, and for that reason, lots of people are already calling it Odelay 2. Sitting for an interview outside a photo studio in L.A. a month after his secret show, Beck?decked out in pink pants and a T-shirt with a roaring tiger’s head on it?balks at that classification. ”I think, You know what, does it matter, does anybody care?” he says, a bit testily (maybe he’s hungry; see sidebar). ”Is it a good song or not?” A big fan of Beck’s agrees. ”It isn’t just a return to Odelay,” argues Josh Schwartz, the creator of The O.C., which featured five of Beck’s new songs in a ”Beckpisode” — Schwartz’s term — on March 10. ”You can feel the full weight of his growth as an artist over the last several records. He still has lyrics that are non sequiturs, but he’ll also kind of reach down and dig deep. There’s a maturity to it.” Guero‘s lyrics, while still off-center, undeniably cut closer than Odelay‘s ”flashdance ass-pants” wordplay.

”I didn’t want it to be jokey,” Beck concedes of Guero. ”I didn’t want it to be overwrought, either. So, it’s a little bit of everything.” Pause. Beck’s speech is littered with pauses. ”Yeah, you just try to articulate certain things in a way that doesn’t come off as too pretentious or overbaked. I find that sometimes you can work on something for a long time and get it to have all these meanings, and sometimes it just doesn’t want to have any of those. The song just wants to be real simple, and not have a lot of significance to it.” An example, he says, is ”Rental Car,” a frolicky Guero tune that includes yodeling: ”It went through a lot of different stages lyrically, but ultimately the chorus is ‘Yeah yeah yeah.’ It doesn’t mean anything else.”

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