For listeners new to Beck, you’ll find yourself pointed towards either Odelay for the signature sound that established Beck as an international artist or Sea Change for the more emotionally-charged (and some would argue best) of his discography. You’ll be left to stumble upon the excellence of Mutations on your own.
Mutations had a lot to live up to in 1998. Odelay, released two years before, had sold around two million records and provided listeners with a unique blend of garage rock, folk music and hip-hop with well-versed lyrics and heavy samples. So it’s surprising that the next step was an acoustic album with no sampling at all – and it was produced by Nigel Godrich from Radiohead fame? What the hell is going on?
Well, it works. It really works.
Mutations was a clean album, a contrast to the raw nature of Beck’s previous releases. As opposed to the slacker culture heralded in previous lyrics, Beck offers a more sombre outlook on life.
“Nobody’s Fault But My Own” deals with isolation, defeat and hardship and provides an elegant accordion break – no signature record scratches or drum sections here. “Canceled Check” borrows a country music sound and is about seeing through facades whilst “Dead Melodies,” complete with a string backing, deals with being at the bottom and assessing life whilst the “doldrums are pounding” (doldrums meaning “a period of stagnation or slump.”)
My favourite song on the album, “Lazy Flies,” is an overlooked gem. Whilst Will Bryant of Pitchfork said in 2002 that the song was “shamelessly gussied-up with tired space-rock bleeps and whooshes,” I would disagree. With weird lyrics and a rhythm that builds up constantly to a non-existent chorus, it provides an outlook of an imagine futuristic settlement which is no better than present day standards. Its hook is pretty catchy too.
Some songs, however, feel out of place. ‘Diamond Bollocks’, a great song that sets up nicely for Beck’s next album Midnight Vultures, it just doesn’t really suit the sound of the rest of Mutations and seems more of a B-side from Radiohead’s OK Computer released the previous year, a coincidence perhaps orchestrated by producer Nigel Godrich. Meanwhile, mediocre elevator-music anthem ‘Tropicala’, for me, is a bizarre release from Beck – I can’t dig it.
For Beck, I feel that Mutations is the album he always wanted to make. “When I was younger, one of my favorite sounds was the Delta-blues slide guitar,” stated Beck in a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone. “I had a lot of songs that were a little more contemplative, quiet and folky. Some of them I tried to record for Odelay, and they just didn’t pan out.” Beck’s attraction to folk music is cemented with his revelation that his 1994 album Mellow Gold was simply a side project from the more folk stuff in One Foot In The Grave, released the same year.
This is the first album we see Beck, internationally famous as of 1998, open up to his listeners. We see his outlook on life riddled with exhaustion and we hear a brilliant album produced with care and professionalism. Albeit often overshadowed by his other efforts, Mutations is a classic and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Beck’s bigger albums.
Verdict: 8.3 out of 10
Gimme the vinyl: https://www.discogs.com/Beck-Mutations/release/461949 (US original release, 1998), https://www.discogs.com/Beck-Mutations/release/10684501 (European Reissue, 2017)