BECK, "GUERO" (V2) ***

The buzz on Beck Hansen's sixth major-label album is that it's a return to form a la 1996's "Odelay," which many consider his high point, partly because he's gone back to working with the Dust Brothers, who produced that disc, and partly because he has once again abandoned meaning in favor of pure sonic silliness.

Like much of Beck's output, "Odelay" had its charms, but there was just as much pointless self-indulgence. If I had to choose the Beck disc to bring to a desert island, it would be his last effort, 2002's "Sea Change," the most mature and least ironic of his career, and the first to sustain a musical and lyrical mood -- one of forlorn heartbreak, stemming from the alleged end of the love of his life. But we should have known that such a wildly inconsistent goofball and devoted Dadaist jokester couldn't maintain such sincerity for long, no matter what level of enlightenment he's reached with Scientology.

With "Guero," Spanish slang for "white boy," Beck is once again plundering his massive record collection for odd inspirations, gleefully trampling genre boundaries and recklessly mixing the most unlikely elements. He's a mad scientist in a sonic laboratory, playing with everything from electro-funk to bossa nova to outerspace blues. But the stream-of-consciousness lyrics that he delivers via his lugubrious rapping and mush-mouthed singing rarely rise to the level of invention in the music.

"Looking for shelter via juxtaposition/Thought control, those written confessions/Two dimensions, dumb your head down," he raps in "Hell Yes." "Make your dreams out of papier-mache/Cliched wasted hate taste-tested." Some critics are "reading" this album as Beck's mid-life crisis, with thoughts of death hanging over his head at age 34, but I decode the lines above to mean, "I'm hiding behind a torrent of words, some of them seemingly heavy, because I have no actual emotions to share with you, but I figure that if I keep spewing, you may never notice!"

Yes, plenty of great pop music is utterly meaningless, and no, I never bought into that "Beck as spokesman of a generation" nonsense. But it's hard to deny that the best moments on "Guero" -- the insanely catchy sing-along anthem "E-Pro," the blissful pop of "Girl," the rolling groove of "Scarecrow" and "Que Onda Guero," an impressionistic tour of the Latin American neighborhood of his teens -- would have been ever better if he actually said something, while the slighter toss-offs such as "Rental Car," "Emergency Exit" and "Earthquake Weather" are all the more dismissible for their utter inanity.

Jim DeRogatis