Recording of February 1999: Mutations

BECK: Mutations
DGC 25309-2 (CD), Bong Load 004 (LP). 1998. Nigel Godrich, Beck Hansen, prods.; John Sorensen, eng. AAD/AAA. TT: 49:17
Performance *****
Sonics ****

With Beck, you basically have to toss out all the rule books—Get a Gig the Right Way! (Revised Ed.), Mel Bay's 1001 E-Z Guitar Chords; hell, even Strunk & White's Elements of Style—and commence investigations at ground zero.

This is not to say that Al Hansen's grandkid is a self-involved iconoclast aiming for cult hero-dom. Despite his well-documented postmodern envelope-pushing, Beck is a radical traditionalist like John Lennon, Ray Davies, Stereolab's Tim Gane, or even PJ Harvey. Both his sense of classic verbal/sonic juxtaposition and his adeptness at arranging reveal the workings of a confirmed student of musical history. And as with all the other greats, Beck's genius lies in how he fuses familiarity to innovation, and how the resultant sonic alchemy leaves us simultaneously charmed and mystified.

The magician's sleight-of-hand likewise extends to how he presents himself. Recall how the slacker naïf of 1993's "Loser" (from Mellow Gold) was transformed into the moon-walking hip-hop rocker of 1996's "Where It's At" (Odelay). Then consider how, earlier this year, Beck encouraged rumors that his new record would be a successor to 1994's lo-fi, mostly acoustic, indie release One Foot in the Grave—Beck further indicating that the songs dated back several years and hadn't fit Odelay's sampladelic mold. DGC, of course, heard the tapes and deemed Mutations to be anything but a stopgap between "serious" albums. (Indie label Bong Load retains a sleeve and is also doing the vinyl honors, with a bonus 7" included with the LP.)

It's conceivable that Beck himself was surprised at how the recording sessions, reportedly a whirlwind two weeks, unfolded, but assuming even a modest degree of self-awareness as a public figure, it's unlikely he would release a collection of half-baked demos at this stage of the game. Even the old "happy accidents" theory doesn't explain why Mutations—admittedly quite different from its predecessors—is such an exciting and fully mature work.

First of all, Mutations sounds gorgeous. It's expansive and full of quirky nuances, particularly in the instrumentation (sitars, trombones, harmonicas, keyboards, synths, and loads of percussion all line up to throw candy darts at your ears), yet is deliberately intimate (vocals are miked close, sans effects), and has a rather dreamlike quality. A song like "Static," for example, is ushered forth on a bed of opiated guitars—very like Mazzy Star—and spectral organ, Beck lyrically arguing for a morsel of privacy: "Let me drown in a convalescent bliss... / It's a perfect day to lock yourself inside." Or in "Nobody's Fault But My Own," an Eastern-tinged slice of late-'60s Brit psychedelia, the groaning sitar and mournful strings cocoon the singer's existential woe: "When the moon is a counterfeit / better find the one that fits," mutters Beck, concluding, "It's such a selfish way to lose / the way you lose these wasted blues."

Secondly, Mutations, in contrast to the instant-party groove of Odelay, plays more like a long-term, grows-on-you classic, evincing a low-key, good-time vibe. It's interesting that while Beck's personal collection of stylistic templates remains locked far away from his audience's prying eyes, Mutations brings to mind a much earlier album whose timelessness has been secured by history: the Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies. Beck taps that source right at the start, his vocal mannerisms in "Cold Brains" recalling Ray Davies' nasal drawl. Later, in "Canceled Check" and "Bottle of Blues," Beck channels Davies' patented Besotted-Everyman persona. (No coincidence that Mutations abounds in allusions to the appeal and futility of seeking salvation in the bottom of the bottle.) Bluesy harmonica and twangy slide guitar drive "Bottle"; woozy trumpet, trombone, and faux tack piano give "Check" a distinctive Muswell flair; and yet another tune, "O Maria," would convince all but the most expert blindfold-test subject that a 1971/72 Kinks outtake had been unearthed.

That said, there are plenty of surprises on Mutations, most notably "Tropicalia"'s breezy Caetano Veloso nod. Although the biggie arrives in the form of a six-minute hidden track, "Diamond Bollocks," which nips a bit of bossa nova rhythm, tosses in harpsichord for no good reason other than it was handy at the time, flirts with some angelic Beach Boys harmonies, then drops into the cauldron a Flaming Lips hammerful of distorted riffs, pulverizing basslines, and effects-drenched vocals. Had this come midway through the album, people would have nodded knowingly: "Ah, that wacky Beck." Positioning such lunacy after the main body, however, Beck signals that he's beholden to no expectations other than to make records that entertain him and, by implication, us—if we trust him.

Forget the pop world's superstars, those modern-era equivalents of royalty. Give us, instead, court wizards like Beck. After all, they're the ones who really pull the strings.—Fred Mills