by Kevin Cenedella
In the summer of 2009, I planned a trip to see my brother on the tropical paradise of Jeju Island off of the coast of South Korea. My preparations for the trip included consulting with doctors to make sure I had enough sedatives to survive a 20 hour plane trip, scouting Seoul's train lines to make sure my post landing rail-ride wasn't a total disaster, stocking up on melatonin for jet lag, and loading my IPod with music I had never heard before. I figured there was no way to better pass the time. How did I know what to listen to? Simple. I just looked up MOJO Magazine's album of the year from approximately 1994-2002. I've always had good luck with their recommendations. In an era when my Internet situation was tenuous at best, they made some great discoveries for me (My Morning Jacket, Reigning Sound, and Broadcast to name a few) all without the luxury of having a listen beforehand. That era was in my coming-of-age wheelhouse, but I figured great things had slipped by, as they always do. I found some great stuff (Super Fury Animal's Rings Around the Sun, for instance). What most surprised and delighted me was Beck's Mutations.
Beck's artistic coming of age coincided almost exactly with mine but I had never heard the album as a whole or any song from it. This was surprising because if you watched MTV or listened to the radio in the Nineties, Beck was almost inescapable. However, Mutations happens to be sandwiched between Odelay and Sea Change, which are seen by most critics as Beck's true masterpieces. Although I had heard and liked Sea Change before my trip, I had seen Beck pre-Sea Change as somewhat of a novelty act. I remember my college roommate repeatedly trying to school me about Beck's Midnite Vultures. I found the album too funny to be taken seriously and probably went back to my room and listened to Roger Water's Amused to Death for the 200th time. Those with closed minds are bound to have to make up for lost time .
The album is surreal and I was in a surreal place. Landing in Seoul was only the first part of my ridiculous journey. I still had another 10 hours of travel. There I was: walking around like a zombie from lack of sleep, trying to calculate what time it was at home, and being scared shitless by the anime billboards that are ubiquitous on throughout Seoul. I found the track “We Live Again" far more comforting than any Korean face I encountered. I listened to it over and over again. It was oddly new and familiar and comforting (I only noticed realized later that its beginning sounds remarkably like Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World").
Mutations lyrics were a revelation for me. I never thought Beck's lyrics would remind me of mid-sixties Dylan in their and surrealness , but then I heard Beck causally drop lines like:
The misers wind their minds
like clocks that grind
their gears on and on...
Beck's reinventions have now become as commonplace as the sun rising. However, trying to reconcile the '90's Beck that I remembered with Mutations was hard. Mutations is mostly what I consider psychedelia, but not in the traditional sense. I often viewed the rambling soundscapes of psychedelia as interesting but somewhat of a crutch for those who were not lyrically inclined. Having a case of writers block? Throw in a three minute guitar solo. Done. Beck's version of the genre is condensed and more powerful by degrees. Constant listenings on my trip convinced me that Beck was no longer "getting busy with the cheese whiz" and I'd better buckle up.
It has often been said the Mutations is a “dark album", but that stamp may have more to do with the hip-hop inspired collages of his earlier work. I think the word "dark" when speaking of Beck tends to mean "not as funny as the song 'Debra.'" However, it is full of apocalyptic visions. Generally the album focuses on the subjects of death and decay. "O Maria," "Cold Brains" and "We Live Again are notable for their bleakness. On "O Maria," Beck utters "everbody knows that death creeps in slow til you feel safe in his arms." Or take this verse from “We Live Again":
Love is a plague in a mix-match parade
Where the castaways look so deranged
When will children learn to let their wildernesses burn?
And love will be new, never cold and vacant
?Certainly not funny. However, I often found myself singing along with a grin on my face because the music inspires so much awe. Beck may be on a sinking ship, but he is staring out into a wondrous world and grinning as the water envelopes him.
It should surprise no one that the skill Beck displays most on Mutations is a quality that has become his calling card over the years: versatility. "Sing it Again" is a gentle waltz punctuated an airy guitar. “O Maria" is a saloon style country ballad complete with twinkling piano. “Static" is a dark rock song that is lightened by some great one liners like “it's so easy to laugh at yourself and all those jokes have aready been written," and "who ya foollin when the fools are right?" Now, waltzes, country-western, and hard rock are certainly not conventionally "trippy," but Beck is somehow able to make them all seem that way.
The turntables, samples, and drum machines are in storage. What you get is mostly the sound of a kick ass five-piece capable of playing in any style. However, Beck throws a couple of curveballs at you. A harpsichord is what makes "We Live Again" so beautiful. "Cold Brains" features a kooky glockenspiel. Mutations sounds unlike anything that came before it. The claustrophobia of Odelay is replaced by space and fresh air.
The influences vary wildly. "Bottle of Blues" would not sound out of place on Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs. Take out the keyboards and turn up the guitars and "Static " is a Nirvana song. "O Maria" sounds like it could have been on Highway 61 Revsited. Yet, the influences don't consume you. Beck sounds as comfortable on one track as on any other.
Beck has said that on Mutations he wanted to create " just a mood piece." He certainly did accomplish that. But to me, that phrase implies a certain amount of lack of ambition on the part of the artist that is intended to invite complacency on the part of the listener. That doesn't give him enough credit. There is so much lyrical, vocal, and musical mastery on those 12 songs that Beck proves that he has something to say to those who were stupid enough not to already know. What is it, exactly? I have no idea.
Lyrically the album is what a psychiatrist might refer to as a schizophrenic's "word soup." Cheapskates clown towns, deserts are lazy, and fields are obscene. The aforementioned influences can be misleading. Cobain, Barrett, and mid-sixties Dylan are obviously not poster boys for mental stability. But, Beck seems totally in of charge of his facilities. Unlike Sea Change, he doesn't seem as if he is tortured in any way. He is actually charming in his lyrical disheveled-ness. He seems always quick with a wink and a smile. Speaking about his perceived obssession with bleakness on Mutations, Beck said "When I sing about decrepitude or corrosion, I'm not sittin' at the wailin' wall. These aren't depressing things to me. They're kind of humorous, ambiguous. They're just part of the fabric of my life." Beck described the opener “Cold Brains," which contains lines like “a hang man's rope pulls me one way or the other" as “hilarious" (and I agree).The end result is a disorientating masterpiece that manages to find genuine joy in the morbid.
Mutations can be seen as a refutation of Beck's earlier methods and image. It was not, in conception or execution, a “look at me!" album. It seems to have been destined to slip through the cracks, and commercially it did. This has a lot to do with the way Beck promoted and released it and a lawsuit that would soon follow.
Beck wanted to release Mutations on his own label, Bong Load, instead of his major label, Geffen. Apparently, Geffen was expecting an eclectic collection of B-side type material similar to One Foot in the Grave (1994). This would have made sense because Beck admitted to have written all of the songs on Mutations years before. Some of the songs had been in Beck's live repertoire for years as well. The material was not new. Geffen (and apparently Beck) didn't expect much. “Sing it Again" had actually been written for Johnny Cash but Beck never sent it to him because he believed it was “rubbish." Perhaps Beck was unsure of how his venture into new sonic territory would go over. Press releases (presumably OK'd by Beck) stressed that Mutations was not an "official" follow-up to Odelay. This seems ridiculous now because I believe Mutations is a superior album. Geffen must have thought the same thing. Upon hearing the tapes, they decided to release it themselves, causing Beck to promptly sue them.
Beck has never been his best advocate. In recent interviews promoting his new album Morning Phase, I have heard him deride both his own voice and songwriting ability. Whether this is a put on, embarrassment from flattery, or his genuine opinion of his own talents is impossible to know. However, it does seem that Beck had few expectations for Mutations at its inception. But, if Beck wanted a simple "mood piece" that wouldn't blow anyone away, why would he call the man who had just produced OK Computer to help make it? This is also a tough question. Nigel Goodrich was the man of the hour who had produced the album of the decade. He certainly shouldn't be mistaken for someone who would be content with a collection of throwaways.
If you study Goodrich's resume, you would assume he is a Brian Wilson type figure: an exacting perfectionist. It might take a week to get a guitar solo to sound right, but it takes however long it takes. However, like the artist he was producing, he managed to be extremely versatile. Amazingly, he recordedMutations the exact opposite way of OK Computer, which took 8 months to record. Mutations took two weeks. Beck typically recorded a song a day in the studio. Minor vocal overdubs and double tracking aside, the album is live. The spontaneity of the sessions is evident in the songs. Goodrich was afraid the looseness of the country-rocker "Cancelled Check" was being ruined by the number of great musicians playing on it, so he forced them to play with bags over their heads! The song ends sloppily with objects being thrown around the studio. Beck's conversation with another musician is left as the beginning of "Sing It Again." There is a certain joyousness that pervades the entire album and it may have started with Mr. Goodrich.
Beck has credited Goodrich for making him focus on his most underrated asset: his voice. Although Beck still seems ashamed to admit it, he truly possesses a beautiful one. This fact would become apparent to all on Sea Change. However, on "Sing it Again" and "Cold Brains", it has never sounded better. It is not just the quality of his voice that sticks out, his delivery is sublime. Beck never seems hurried, but lazily extends syllables in an Indica inspired traquility.
The album would wrap up a remarkable few years for the pair. Odelay and Mutations both won Grammys. Goodrich would stay on with Beck and produce Sea Change and The Information (2006). Goodrich (sometimes referred to as "the sixth member of Radiohead") can boast to have gotten the best out of the two most influential acts of the era.
Critical acclaim aside, Mutations did not fare well commercially. Beck chose to make no music videos for the album. He only released singles in Japan and Australia. If Beck's "prime" starts with his breakthrough Mellow Gold (1994) , and ends with Sea Change (2002) , only One Foot in the Grave has sold less than Mutations during that period. Over the years, songs from the album have gradually disappeared from his live act. Beck seems content to let the album sit there in plain sight, waiting for you to discover it. It has become a lost classic that is best listened to when you're lost or lonely. I promise your next road trip will be more enjoyable if you take it along.
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