Beck’s folksy, dark Mutations

Since they don’t tend to OD on trendy drugs or get in high-speed car wrecks, today’s slacker musicians have had to find something else to fear. Enter professionalism, the demonic evil that destroyed the Replacements years ago, David Lowery and countless others since. The problem is simple: slacker ethos is supposed to refute production and planning, not embrace it. After all, that’s where the tossed-off charm comes from, right?

To his credit, Beck isn’t willing to concede the point. So shocked by the fact that some people actually bought his slacker Talmud Mellow Gold, he retreated to his garage and, with a little help from his friends, recorded two albums of the sort of embryonic toss-offs he barely had the chance to start his career with. Imagine, then, the pressure and expectations the poor guy knew he was facing after Odelay, an album that backpedaled into an entirely believable new form of musical historiography.

The result of his pressure could easily have gone in one of two directions: willful retreat to indie slackerdom (cf. Pavement’s magnificent Wowee Zowee) or refutation thereof (cf. The Replacements’ unfortunate last two albums). But Beck has too many ideas bouncing around in his head to go to either extreme; instead, Mutations embraces professionalism as a new way to expose the loose ends that will forever tug at the noose in the back of his mind.

The production on Mutations, in other words, is first-rate: Nigel Goodrich, now famous for Radiohead’s OK Computer, mans the deck and no doubt proud parent David Campbell, the, um, “genius” who brought you the strings on Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” lends arrangements on a pair of tracks. And this time there’s an actual band playing the songs – no more Beck twiddling knobs in the studio or inviting friends over to screw around.

But despite the bells and whistles, Mutations is conspicuously low on sheen and sunshine. It’s dark in its somewhat rough-hewn edges: the gratuitous white noise that closes “Canceled Check,” the hoarse-voiced plaint of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” Even more importantly, it’s dark in its lyrical obsession with all that’s decrepit and decayed. If Odelay represented a world of microphones, turntables and flashdance asspants, Mutations is all about rotten eggs, millennial fogs, dead melodies, graveyard machines and funeral fires.

You have to listen to Mutations to believe what a surprising masterstroke Beck’s turn to the moribund is. On paper, Beck’s world-weary ruminations about growing “weary of the end” are almost as shticky as Jon Spencer’s, but on the album, their juxtaposition with his trademark scattershot eclecticism creates a thoroughly unique topical diversity: a thousand points of dark, maybe.

So although Mutations is basically a folk album, its joy lies in Beck’s continued efforts to stretch folk’s vocabulary. On Odelay, punk (“Minus”) and hip-hop (almost everything else) became folk; on Mutations everything but the kitchen sink fits in the big tent. The first single, “Tropicalia” (essentially “Deadweight pt. 2”), puts bossanova in the folk camp: you can almost hear Jobim and Dylan shaking hands in the chorus. “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” finds claustrophobia in a pre-Beatles sitar dirge. “Canceled Check” channels Hank Williams until the winsome chorus bursts out. The hidden track, “Diamond Bollocks” points in about ten different directions, from psychedelic rock to guitar indulgence to ’60s folk-pop and back again.

But as referential as Mutations is, none of its songs sound like anything, or anybody, else. That’s because Beck has gotten more and more adept as a songwriter: he doesn’t just miscegenate his influences, he focuses them. The album itself may be loose and easygoing, but the compositions themselves are tight and consistent, and they’re conjoined by the emergence of a foundation hinted at on Mellow Gold’s “Nitemare Hippy Girl” and Odelay’s “Lord Only Knows,” an admiration for Dylan folk augmented with a knack for Beatlesque hooks.

What it all means is nebulous at best, which is why Geffen (not to mention Beck himself) has been quick to point out that Mutations is not the official follow-up to Odelay (that should come out some time in mid to late ’99, and it’s purported to be quite the blowout). Odelay set out – and succeeded – in highlighting just what it means to party like it’s 1999; Mutations, on the other hand, doesn’t make any claims to prescience, and it doesn’t deliver anything unexpected in that department.

Though it certainly won’t attract more than a fraction of the fans that Odelay did, Mutations deals smartly with professionalism in pursuing vignette and doing it damn well. The shock is that even at his least ambitious, Beck slapped together an album that has more to say about musical historiography than anything else put out by a commercially viable artist this year. Maybe the get-fresh flow is missing, but Beck’s jigsaw jazz is as compelling a sound as anything on the dial.

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