Pick of the Geek – Beck’s Mutations

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One of the many mysteries of late-’90s rock criticism is why so much effort was expended trying to work out whether Beck is a serious artist who, y’know, means it, man. Entire critical reputations were staked on trying to work out if he was expressing genuine emotion in his music or just a poser. Advocates for the latter position would often point out that he was prone to following albums like 1998’s plaintive, autumnal Mutations with the camp synth-funk of 1999’s Midnite Vultures, as though it was some sign of disgraceful insincerity that he was capable of being both sad and happy. Sometimes it seems as if Beck was teasing those critics who found his genre shifts inauthentic, particularly when he trailed this album with lead-off single ‘Tropicalia’. A skittering, uptempo samba with cryptic, anxious lyrics and precision blasts of Moog synthesiser, it sounds absolutely nothing like the rest of this album, which is dominated by country and folk styles. Not that Beck is above mixing his genres, even in the confines of a song. ‘Cancelled Check’ and ‘Bottle of Blues’ start off as fairly orthodox country exercises before descending into multi-instrumental carnage, ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’ backs its plaintive lament with circling, ominous sitars, and even the stripped-back, acoustic numbers like ‘Dead Melodies’ is spiked with lyrics like “Doldrums are pounding/ Cheapskates are clowning this town/ Who could disown themselves now?” If you measure authenticity in music by the emotions it can conjure in the listener, though, Beck’s engagement with these styles is real.

The second half includes some of the most moving songs of his prolific career, including the spare, delicate ‘Sing It Again’ (originally written for Johnny Cash) and the wistful, witty bar-room piano lament of ‘O Maria’. The final track, ‘Static’, is perhaps the most underappreciated. Built around a wall of distant, fuzzy bass and rhythm guitar and slight, doodling pedal steel, it finds Beck looking out on the “lazy desert” and “holy mountains”, before concluding “it’s a perfect day to lock yourself inside”. It is then followed by a hidden track, which begins as duet for harpsichord and orgasmic grunting before being swamped by heavy acid rock guitars, a ferocious drum workout from Joey Waronker, lyrics about “derelict confections… so out of place”, and around ten seconds of unaccompanied birdsong. Because that’s just how Beck does things.

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