Mutations

Beck

album cover

When There's No More Confetti to Throw. . .

Two years after his critically drooled-over smash Odelay, cagey postmodernist Beck Hanson offered this set, which was produced by Radiohead Svengali Nigel Godrich. Beck and his record label insisted at the time that it wasn't the "official" follow-up, and in artistic terms, it's a galaxy away: If Odelay is bright primary colors and flashing dance floor lights, Mutations is rustic earth tones and pastel shades blurred artfully together. The most concise introduction to Beck's zany record making, it's one of the most creative pop music statements of the 1990s.

Beck's interest in croaky country tunes and strange blues offshoots was well documented before Mutations—he'd followed his breakthrough single "Loser" with the lo-fi One Foot in the Grave (1994). A few songs on Mutations echo the general bent of that release, notably "Cancelled Check," which is appointed with pedal-steel guitar beamed straight from some lonely jukebox on the outskirts of Nashville. More often, though, Beck fits elements of roots music into an ancient-meets-modern patchwork. The lyrics of "Nobody's Fault but My Own" borrow from Blind Willie Johnson's holy blues "Nobody's Fault but Mine" to tell a fairly conventional bluesman's tale of regret, but the melody is a study in questioning, upturned half steps, and the surrounding music contains everything from random splashes of synthesizer to spacey psychedelic guitars.

The common perception of Beck is that of a reckless mixmaster, a crazed Iron Chef chucking odd sounds and radioactive images into a busy soup. There's some of that on Mutations, but it's held in check—with this album, Beck's lyric non sequiturs no longer dictate the whole game. Rather, they're part of tightly structured songs, with sly chord sequences and bracingly beautiful melodies that hang in the air, unresolved. These transform conventional genre studies—the samba evocation "Tropicalia," the Delta postcard "Bottle of Blues"—into highly personal creations. If you're new to Beck, start here: This diverse, deliriously inspired collection will make you curious to hear everything he's done.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1998, DGC/Bong Load
Key Tracks: "Cold Brains," "Nobody's Fault but My Own," "We Live Again," "Tropicalia," "Bottle of Blues"
Catalog Choice: Odelay; Sea Change
Next Stop: Caetano Veloso:
After That: Ween: Black Pepper
Book Pages: 64–65

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Comments:

#1 from Bryan, St. Paul, MN - 11/04/2008 8:28

Really? Mutations, out of all his albums? There are at least two that are better—Odelay and the oft-overlooked Midnite Vultures, his best.

#2 from Klaus Olsen, Copenhagen, Denmark - 02/04/2009 6:40

A beautiful recording - and so is Sea Change.

#3 from tom moon - 02/08/2009 6:23

Hey and thanks for the comments.

Artists like Beck—those who change styles and approaches frequently—presented me with some of the biggest challenges in doing this project.

Odelay is the obvious choice, the commercial breakthrough, and a great record. Ditto Midnite Vultures. Sea Change is my personal favorite, a great example of an artist “zagging” away from what’s expected.

I sought a record that would serve as an introduction for the uninitiated and at the same time offer a satisfying full album experience. any of the above could have worked—ultimately it was the staggering diversity of styles on Mutations that tipped it for me.

btw, not that you asked, the “path” I’d recommend for Beck exploration goes like this:

Mutations
Odelay
Midnite Vultures
Sea Change
One Foot in the Grave

thanks for those comments!

tm

#4 from Josh, Illinois - 02/13/2009 11:12

Tom,

I do not disagree with your exploration path, but how is the average listener supposed to come across “One Foot in the Grave”?

#5 from tom moon - 02/13/2009 6:06

Josh….

Thanks for your note. One Foot was available commercially for a long time, and I’m sorta surprised to learn that it’s not available still. I guess it’s one of those used/secondary market things now. Which is a shame. Gotta believe that someday it will return, at least in digital form.

Happy exploring…

tm

#6 from Paul J, Bellevue, WA - 12/31/2009 12:45

eBay has plenty of copies of “Foot in the Grave” at reasonable prices. Just ordered my copy.

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