In 1998, it seemed that there was more to Beck than his “slacker” rapping pounding Generation X anthem “Loser.” In 1996, Beck released his supreme second official studio album, Odelay, which many consider his best album, launching him into being one of the greatest artists from the 1990s. Like Beck’s previous album, Mellow Gold (1994), it was an album of versatility. It blended various genres such as folk, psychedelia, hip-hop, noise rock, and electronic rock. Set apart from this, to follow-up his magnum opus, Beck released Mutations—an album that showcased a more folksy and bluesy side to Beck, which was established in his early days. In other words, it was a return to Beck’s true artistry. In 1998, the public knew Beck for his obscured witty lyrics and eclectic style, featured in his first two official albums. Other than that, what he did on albums like One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathetic Soulmanure in 1994, which showcased this sort of style in a more widened lo-fi production style, was ignored commercially.
After two years of tireless touring, Beck went back into the studio to record a new album. According to Beck, in the VH1 special, Behind the Music, he was going through an acoustic period and wanted to record a no sample-mixed album that was straightforward with some traditional songs. He hired no other than Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich. In two weeks, they recorded some space-age folk tunes, establishing Beck as an innovative artist. He would name this album Mutations—transformation from its predecessor. The album wasn’t supposed to be released as an official album due to the change in style from its previous one. Beck meant to release the album independently, but when his label, Geffen, heard it, they allegedly swiftly released it. And besides, Nigel Godrich is too good to produce an independent record.
Mutations opens with “Cold Brains”—a psychedelic track about nothing but death. The most memorable verse is its opening, including Beck’s glorious emphasis on the lyric “unglued” or as we know it, “ungluuuUUUed,” which perfectly matched the seamlessly synchronized synths.
Following that, is the languishing and haunting “Nobody’s Fault but My Own.” It’s remorseful, but the lyrics later drift towards selfishness and eventually, the narrator falls in a sinister nature of depression. It’s considered to be the most compelling song off the album, embedding elements of Indian music just as Odelay embraced Latin. The track “Lazy Flies”—a never-ending vocal approach from Beck with memorable lyrics like “The skin of a robot vibrates with pleasure.” The softly sung lyrics act almost like a precursor to what Beck would show on his spellbinding follow-up a year later, Midnite Vultures. Afterwards follows my personal favorite, “Cancelled Check” that depicts a false reassurance. In an interview with KCRW back in 1995, Beck stated how the song was inspired by an infomercial, discussing positive thinking and offering the viewer more if they purchase his tape. “We Live Again” was a song written by Beck as a tribute to his grandfather, Al Hansen. Beck’s grandfather was an obscure artist, who employed garbage in his art, like stated in the lyrics: “Turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy”—a major influence on Beck. The song was a great transition piece into the approaching experimental climax.
A song heard like no other throughout the album is the exotic “Tropicalia.” It’s a song depicting a festival-like atmosphere celebrating Brazilian music with dancing and such, but behind all of this, “misery awaits.” It’s a tribute to the many Tropicalian artists of the late sixties, including Os Mutantes, who Beck very much admired. In Throwing Frisbees At The Sun: A Book About Beck, Beck stated that he still wakes up early on Sunday mornings and riffles through old stacks of records at various stores hoping to find an old folk collection, or some Tropicalia that he’d never heard of. In an interview by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Beck stated “‘Tropicalia was a song loosely about that era of Brazilian music and culture when these musicians were under siege by the powers that be and the music was changing. I found it an exciting time and interesting subject matter.” It’s one of those happy sounding depressing songs.
Later songs such as “Dead Melodies,” “Bottle of Blues,” and “O Maria” continued this beautiful flow the album offers. Furthermore, came the song “Sing It Again,” almost like an encore piece that killed the consistent flow heard throughout the album. At the beginning, Beck is heard saying: “Should we do another one then?” The albums ends with the elegant and heart-wrenching “Static,” a perfect closing for the album, where Beck utters the final lyrics “Be gone.”
The album has now ended, so you think. Out of the speakers, comes this odd Game Boy carnival sound transitioning towards a hard rocking guitar riff. Later, you hear Beck singing on this hidden track, unlike the previous hidden tracks from earlier albums which are mostly electronic high-pitched noises. The track is entitled “Diamond Bollocks,” which sounds like an extra off Odelay. The style of this hidden track was perfect with what followed a year later.
With the success of Odelay, Beck brought in a new fan base with Mutations and introduced listeners to the softer side of him. With a strong critical reception, it still didn’t reach the potential as its forerunner. It was an album where Beck wanted to be taken seriously. He wasn’t singing about going back to Houston to get some pants or a giant dildo crushing the sun. His lyrics here were much more somber and mature than what he recorded before. It’s not an enigma this time, we know what he is talking about. He echoed and fulfilled that beauty of those early days into something sonorous. Thanks to Mutations, it lead the way for companion albums to follow such as Sea Change (2002) and Morning Phase (2014). Unfortunately, it’s an album overshadowed by its placement within Beck’s discography, but it truly showed Beck after his breakthrough.
Highlights — “Tropicalia,” “Cold Brains,” “Bottle of Blues,” “Cancelled Check,” “Diamond Bollocks” and “Static”
Listen to Beck’s Mutations here.