BECK: MUTATIONS (1998)
1) Cold Brains; 2) Nobody's Fault But My Own; 3) Lazy Flies; 4) Canceled Check; 5) We Live Again; 6) Tropicalia; 7) Dead Melodies; 8) Bottle Of Blues; 9) O Maria; 10) Sing It Again; 11) Static; 12) Diamond Bollocks; 13) Runners Dial Zero.
This album marks a serious turning point. Before the rise to major superstardom, Beck would fluctuate between «lo-fi anti-folk» and «hi-fi sample madness», lending his post-modernist deconstruction talents to the idea of commercial success, and his depressed garbageman side to indie labels, so as not to lose his standing in the underground. Thus, for every Mellow Gold you had yourself a Golden Feelings, for every Odelay — a Foot In The Grave.
Mutations was originally thought of, I suppose, as more of a follow-up to the latter than the former: the next installment in Beck's ongoing series of «reinventing the roots», but without the samples and hip-hop beats. To that end, Beck even had an agreement with Geffen that the record, as an experimental project with no commercial appeal, would be released on an indie label. However, everything changed as Radiohead took the world by storm with OK Computer. Suddenly, post-modernistic irony was out of vogue again... suddenly, there was once more a certain demand on sullen, introspective singer-songwriters... and, suddenly, Beck found himself working with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's producer — which, for better or worse, meant that coming up with another Golden Feelings was out of the question, unless the covert idea was to make Godrich die of a heart attack and quash the competition.
Whatever those circumstances were, the end result of this collaboration between the «intellectual garbageman» and the «master of technophilic melancholia» is an excellent album — and a great introduction to Beck for those who may be too put off by his experimental side to notice the true talent behind the «glitzy» and the «trashy» aspects of his work alike. Mutations is a very «nor-mal»-sounding, but a complex, diverse, intelligent, emotionally rich record — and, best of all, the actual songs are nowhere near as boring as that description might suggest. Just blame it on the inadequacy of the language, or the language user.
Predictably, Beck and Godrich still settle on old-timey blues/folk lamentation as the departing point — and even when the melodic backbone is more akin to post-war singer-songwriters than to pre-war blueswailers, Beck still finds the time to name the song ʽNobody's Fault But My Ownʼ, with a transparent throwback to Blind Willie Johnson (and not Led Zeppelin, of course). But now, other than being different through the application of Beck's lyrics and Beck's quite-modern personality, they are also different through Godrich's atmospheric production ideas — and the man adds layers of surprising depth that was hitherto inaccessible for Mr. «Feel Like A Piece Of Shit» Hansen, but now somehow feels quite native to his vision.
The «Radiohead touch» is immediately observable from the first seconds of ʽCold Brainsʼ, a song that, with a little extra tweaking, could have easily fit on The Bends. Wobbly wah-wahs, subliminal distorted riffs, astral noises burbling in the background — without all these embellishments, the song would have been just another acoustic guitar / harmonica-driven folk meditation, a «poor man's Neil Young» offering. Instead, we get a sensory feast of a «space-folk» panorama that belies the song's lyrics: "Cold brains / Unmoved / Untouched / Unglued / Alone at last / No thoughts / No mind / To rot / Behind / A trail of disasters...", but, apparently, even in that unmoved, untouched, unglued state there is a hell of a lot of different stuff going on within those «cold brains» — if the song is not a melodic masterpiece, it should at least be the object of every producer's wet dream.
For ʽNobody's Fault But My Ownʼ, Godrich invites Warren Klein, who used to play for the Stooges in the early 1970s and then moved on to studying Indian music, to contribute sitar overdubs — and, once more, turns a potentially pedestrian composition into a psychedelic «sea of droning» that illustrates the protagonist's «floating» state of mind so much more vividly than it would have with just an acoustic guitar and Beck's tired, reprehensive vocals. ʽLazy Fliesʼ takes the idea of an «intellectual country waltz» and throws so much in the pot — big bass drums, harpsichords, wah-wahs, Theremin imitations, fuzzy leads, whatever — that by the time you get down to the actual chords and find out that they are quite easy, you will have already gained enough respect for the song to be properly disappointed.
And so on, and on — this Godrich touch ensures that something at least can be said about each song regardless of whether it strikes you on a personal level or not: a classic bait for critical praise (and the critics did not disappoint). So as not to fall in this trap of spending too much time on an album that, after all, may not quite deserve it, I will limit myself to just a small handful of additional mentions: ʽTropicaliaʼ is a terrific mix of Latin rhythms and ominous jazz chords (although most people will probably remember it for the sneering grin of the cuíca, tortured by percussionist Smokey Hormel); ʽO Mariaʼ would have been perfectly at home as part of a soundtrack where a grizzled Beck is playing honky tonk piano in a smoky intergalactic space bar; and ʽDiamond Bollocksʼ (included as a hidden track on some of the album's editions) is Mutations' blistering nod to hip-cool mid-1960s Revolver-ish rock'n'roll, but only as if Syd Barrett came to guest star on one of the tracks.
These are just a few examples, but even though some of the songs take a little more time to get into than others, I can find no serious individual flaws — nor do I have any problems with the concept of the album in general. Of course, Beck never took himself as seriously as Thom Yorke, so there was no chance that Mutations could ever be hailed as «the Album of its generation», but on the positive side, Mutations, unlike Radiohead, does have a sense of humor. But above and beyond everything else, this is one of Nigel's finest hours — his work on Mutations really goes to show that a truly great producer is always a great producer, no matter what sort of artist he works with (as long as the artist is generally talented, of course). Despite living in the same age, Beck and Radiohead are very different — yet Godrich was able to adapt essentially the same style of production to the essence of each of them without running into serious problems. (Seven years later, he would once again work a similar, but different kind of magic on Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation In The Backyard).
Do keep in mind that the «Beck/Godrich» way of working is very different from the «Beck/Dust Brothers» way of working — for practical purposes, these are almost two different Becks, where it is fairly easy to rave over one and get bored with the other, or to be enchanted by the latter and disgusted by the former, depending on whether you came here from Beastie Boys Wasteland or Radiohead Sanitarium. Then again, whatever be the situation, there is always a Blind Willie Johnson, blindly peeking out from behind the backs of both — and a dark alley with a smelly garbage can. This one, however, is located somewhere on Aldebaran, which is all the more reason to give it a thumbs up, and hope someone out there has a telescope capable of detecting it.
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