After big commercial success with 1994’s “Loser”, a hilarious bit of slacker/hipster/music-nerd post-hiphop grooving, Beck gave no indication that he was looking to replicate that success nor to be pigeonholed by it. The strikingly different Odelay (1996) followed, electrifying Mellow Gold’s acoustic guitars and adding harsh beats and kaleidoscopic samples while moving through a feverish if cohesive array of musical styles.
Having built upon his success anyway, he went into a studio with a few musicians with the aim of putting down a song a day for a couple weeks — a few overdubs, but nothing fancy or labor-intensive. Largely acoustic, even more mysteriously cohesive a set than Odelay, and dripping with an effortless psychedelia totally lacking in nostalgia or exploitation, Mutations is Beck’s best album, a stunning, dare I say perfect, trip through a decaying landscape that neither has to strive for what it attains nor fails to enthrall for a single second.
Mutations finds Beck, like many other LSD-inspired musicians, preoccupied with death and decay, and the album’s lyrics are full of references to shadows, rotten eggs, slow old trains, and gamblers’ purses laying on the road. There is nothing pessimistic or sepulchral about it, however; it is a set of ruminations and resignations, a bleary comment on one’s grey surroundings — Beck gives us certain details, but doesn’t provide any whole scenes for context. Nor do we find him opinionated about anything. Just reporting. It’s a dusty attic, but it’s a sunny afternoon and light is coming in through the wooden window, lighting up big squares of dust on the floorboards.
The cover is perfect — just a photograph, with the artist’s name and the album title — no graphics or clever illusions. Beck in a t-shirt looks addled, but soft and approachable. He is looking towards the camera but not directly at it, which is oddly disquieting. He holds a piece of plastic that glints randomly, mirroring the lysergic pops that crackle underneath the simple acoustic exteriors.
Drawing on his life-long love of old blues and folk music as well as his postmodern psychedelia, Mutations stands as Beck’s turning point, when he mutated from a dazzling gimmicky wunderkind into a mature (if still precocious) musical force to be reckoned with. There is nothing fake about Beck’s Mutations, and its maturity, pleasantness and sustained periods of inspired lunacy continue to reward after repeated listens. It’s in my Top 5 albums of all time, and though I’ve probably listened to it carefully over a hundred times it is still as fresh and astonishing as ever, one of those rare pieces of music that enters the bloodstream and works its way into ones DNA. Moreso on each listen.
Beck — Mutations: Track-by-track review
1. “Cold Brains”
The album starts with “Cold Brains”, which hits immediately with a simple acoustic guitar chord sequence, unobtrusive drums and a somewhat cheesy phased lead part — wow-wow-wow-wow, wow-wow-wow-wow — providing focus for the whole thing. An irresistible fall back to a 7th chord sends chills up your spine.
Beck soon begins the vocals, and the song sets the tone for the rest of the album: he sings clearly, without much ornamentation or even emotion, concentrating on the lovely melody and presumably using his voice as another instrument to be blended into the whole. Not only his singing, but the lyrics of the very first lines set the tone:
Alone at last
In the chorus, the sound is widened and fleshed out to great effect: a multi-tracked Beck sings almost pleadingly while a bleeping synthesizer careens through the soundscape. The vocal melody, already beautiful, again sends a thrill up your spine when Beck hits an odd, unexpected note during the phrase “abandoned hearse”. It tastes like the plastic sheet Beck is holding on the cover, if that piece were aluminum foil.
This thrill ride later incorporates an almost-tuneless harmonica solo, and there is that great part towards the end when a machine-like noise ramps up the proceedings — just briefly, just under the mix — or Beck’s final excursion into the chorus. “Cold Brains” then disintegrates as pianoesque synths plink slower and slower and the final chord from the acoustic guitar is allowed to die away.
2. “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”
If the first two songs of an album are supposed to provide the 1-2 punch to alert all and sundry what the album is about, what does Beck choose as the second song after the blissful mid-tempo psych of the opening song? Why, something to slow things down even more, naturally.
Its title inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson (rather than the equally inspired Led Zeppelin), “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is Mutations’s most overtly psychedelic tone poem. Moving slow and steady, with weird sounds swirling verrrrrry sloooooowly constantly all around, the rhythm (such as it is) is actually kept in place by a lively acoustic guitar on chord duty.
But that’s hardly noticeable as the rest of the track is so thick and swampy. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is really a more mature, more streamlined and more effective version of Mellow Gold’s stunning closer “Blackhole”; while that track achieved its effect with a spidery gumbo of overdubbed 12-string acoustic guitars, here Beck uses Indian drones, tuneless soundwarps, and unreal chord surprises (but slow, always slowly) to settle the listener into a world defined by what it isn’t: this isn’t outer space, exactly, but it isn’t inner space either. And it certainly isn’t the present world we all function in.
Beck’s chorus of voices moves as slow as the music, becoming the most resonant on the chill-inducing
Who could ever be so cruel?
Blame the devil
For the things you do-oo
where the final chord of the sequence turns out to be lower than you might have expected — a kind of anchor, like finding a big hidden room at the bottom of a winding passageway in an Egyptian tomb excavation. Smoke immediately enters the room to curl around — it’s those drones, the ever-present curls of sound that permeate the track throughout. They must be omniscient.
Or any other pompous, self-important psychedelic imagery you’d like to project upon it: this song can take any image, absorb any notion — its lack of precision becomes its versatility; its unaggressiveness its approachability. Every interpretation is correct. Every feeling it gives you is real. And if you are not interested in such considerations, don’t worry: the song kicks aural ass if nothing else.
In every aspect, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is one of the most incredible things Beck has done, and if you’re a fan of “original” era psych or Krautrock or anything like that, rest assured that the kids are indeed alright.
3. “Lazy Flies”
This is one of the standout tracks on Mutations, with its crowded chord changes, freewheeling lyrics and vocals, and ever-present but subtle weird burbles. “Lazy Flies” scoots along quite cheerfully, firing way too many images at the listener to possibly be taken in at once.
The title is apparently derived from a baseball announcer term for a ball batted in a high slow arc which should be easily catchable but takes forever to come down, though the only mention of the phrase in the song uses it as an insect pun (in the opening line):
Lazy flies all hovering above
The magistrate he puts on his glove
And he looks to the sky
All pink and disheveled
The poetry of this song has an outstanding balance and rhythm. What is even more remarkable is that Beck neither plays it safe nor has to strain unnaturally for a line — he comes by his riveting poetry naturally, and ‘weird’ as they are, the lyrics of “Lazy Flies” feel right, inevitable even. Imagine Edgar Allan Poe scribbling fragmentary notes about some high-society gathering on scraps of paper, then tearing them up and throwing them in a heap. A century and a half later Beck finds the papers in a closet (a closet in the very room in which the soirée was held, perhaps), reassembles them to his liking, and presents the puzzle for all of us to marvel at and decipher together. “The skin of a robot vibrates with pleasure” indeed.
The rhythm of the words overall put a stress on every third syllable, mirroring the waltz time of the music. As usual, the highly impressionistic lyrics seem preoccupied with dust and decay:
Who wants to be there to sweep the debris?
To harness dead horses?
To lighten the sun
A life of confessions written in the dust
While “chewing dried meat in a house of disrepute” and reporting on “syphilis patients on brochure vacations”, Beck and his acoustic-plus-Moog band remain very tight, though the song is deceptively complex — not only for its dynamic chord sequence reminiscent of Syd Barrett’s “The Gnome” but for a variable strumming pattern that may go unnoticed underneath the vocals by many listeners. (If you play guitar, though, it’s an absolute blast to strum through this one; to get you started: C G A E F C and F G F C B C G F# F C. Wow that’s even fun to type!)
A harpsichord(-esque?) sound helps solidify the song somewhat, as does an occasional low grinding noise that somehow comes across as proto-melodic. Towards the end of the track, Beck sings a whole verse full of wordless “la la la”s, giving Mutations one of its freest and most untethered moments. It’s as if he’s just enjoying the movement of the changing-every-second chords so much that all he can do is cheer each one on with a respectfully obedient meter:
La la la la lalala laaaa!
4. “Canceled Check”
This song’s title was inspired by a phrase by self-improvement guru Tony Robbins who refers to the past as a canceled check. Musically, this is a sort of mid-tempo country song whose extremely laid back slide guitar often crosses imperceptibly over into Syd-with-a-Zippo psychedelic territory.
Otherwise, a tinkly piano trills some honky tonk notes and Beck adds his harmonica at times. It isn’t straight country of course; halfway through there is what sounds like a grunting pig buried in the mix, and “Cancelled Check” is overall just too spacy to be anything but Beck. Segue to explanation of the lyrics…
The lyrical hook is a set of repeated lines in the choruses that come as the slide guitars revert briefly back to quasi-normal ‘country’ status:
I get caught up in the moonlight
Reaching out for a rotten egg
I don’t wanna beg
It’s crystal clear your time is nearly gone
Apparently worried about things getting too predictable, the short track ends with about 45 seconds of electronic noises and chaos, sounding like what the end of Pink Floyd’s “Bike” might be like if played live on stage by Louis and Gilbert and their Revenge Of The Nerds TRS-80s.
5. “We Live Again”
Another of Mutations’s serious psychedelic explorations, this sonically dense number gets its transportative powers not from any mélange of unusual noises and beeps enveloping one another but through a simple harpsichord-and-guitar combo following a brushed drumbeat while an echo-laden electric guitar sprinkles melodic notes over the top and underneath. Simple stuff.
Beck’s multi-tracked vocals feature some of Mutations’s finest singing, and it is in fact the singing that is the track’s true musical co-conspirator (along with that harpsichord). Maybe it’s because of the song’s best line that I always imagine “We Live Again” a taking place in some misty forest:
When will children learn to let their wildernesses burn?
The album’s general outlook, summed up neatly in one astonishing line.
Supposedly inspired by the death of Beck’s artist grandfather, there isn’t much in the lyrics that seems to relate directly to that, at least not for the casual listener. But no matter; whatever its subject, the slow (only “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is deeper in the molasses) pace of “We Live Again”, as well as its perfect placement on the album, help to tie together Mutations so far — recalling the other slow acoustic-psych pieces that have come before while tempering the haze with a steady simplicity of sound. This is Mutations at its most touchingly beautiful.
For some reason this imminently enjoyable exercise in Brazilian tropicalia has become one of Mutations’s most well-known calling cards. This is presumably because it was released as a single — an odd choice, since while it undoubtedly gives the album a lot of its eclectic appeal, “Tropicalia” is not representative of the record generally. It would be like the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed being noted for “Monkey Man” — a great song, but not exactly the essence of the album distilled into one track.
At any rate, on Mutations this track is the hardest left turn yet: peppy and fun, it features Beck having crossed some international border and finding him and his band turned on by the locals and joining in whatever fun happens to be on tap. Marrying tropical sounds with smart-ass electronic psychedelia and sudden hiphop beats half-borrowed from the Beastie Boys, the track belies its relationship with its Mutations brethren via its generally acoustic instrumentation, comfortably stoned vibe, and Beck’s curiously dispassionate-though-expressive voice.
Oh and now you’ve had your fun
Under an air-conditioned sun
he sings, while a Donovan-like flute flutters showily overhead. I always imagine this song as taking place not out in the streets on a hot summer party afternoon, but in a bamboo hut off to the side, where revelers take a break to cool off and enjoy the breeze from a fan and the green oversized plants that decorate the room.
Some of the instrumental interplay both recalls Odelay and anticipates the much harder electronic experimentations that would comprise Midnite Vultures. The track ends with several seconds of the band disintegrating into random noise.
7. “Dead Melodies”
Mutations’s last real psychedelic gem, this song takes its imagery from “Cold Brains” and its simple beauty from “We Live Again”, merging them into a short piece that features some of Beck’s best singing and most soaring (well, at times) melodies.
Doldrums are pounding
Cheapskates are clowning this town
Who could disown themselves now?
he demands with real conviction. On an album not known for Led Zeppelin III-like (or even Midnite Vultures-like) vocal prowess, a little dynamism goes a long way on this fantastic, too-brief track.
The song has few lyrics, relying to substantial degree on intriguing instrumental play between an acoustic guitar plucking big melodic notes as a counter to another guitar ringing in high-necked chord snippets. And as “Dead Melodies” ends unceremoniously after the last line, multi-tracked (and probably digital) flutes reach a few seconds beyond everything else, sounding like a more subdued Donovan or Strawberry Alarm Clock still keeping the faith in a post-apocalyptic Haight-Ashbury.
8. “Bottle Of Blues”
Beck allows himself to get into an honest-to-god groove on “Bottle Of Blues”, which is at once much brighter and zippier than most of the rest of Mutations — rather ironic, considering the downer title and lyrics concerning impotence and exhaustion.
The song invites many more of Beck’s sound-collage elements along than other tracks on the album, resulting in a jovial cacophony of fluttering synth notes, swampy organic echoes that goo and slide under the crust, and what sounds like a buzzing electronic insect (think of it as a lazy fly come to screw around mischievously with the vintage synthesizer settings). “Bottle Of Blues” is the acoustic cousin of “Get Real Paid” from Midnite Vultures, less developed than that track’s explicit electronica (and more drunken than keyed up) but related nonetheless.
The band is at its tightest here — listen to the way they all follow the tricky changes when the chords do that descending carefully-timed pattern during the line about black balloons being “banged / and / blown on a backwards river”. It took careful craft and a certain psychic synergy to pull off; these guys were totally locked in to each other. It’s one of the best things about the album.
The way Beck matches a pointlessly intricate vocal melody to the merry music (during the lines “Put a nickel in a graveyard machine / I get higher and lower”, hear the odd low note on the second syllable of “machine”) comes across as the singer having a ball with the song and tunneling deep into the words and melodic structures out of sheer playfulness. When all musical cylinders are firing things are great indeed, and when an artist is in the midst of such a concentrated outpouring of inspired brilliance as Beck, band and producer were during the Mutations sessions, the results can be unbelievable. Or as John Lennon might put it, “When it’s good it’s really good.” Amen.
The real story of “Bottle Of Blues” though — the steady Ringo behind the flashy exterior — is the combination of aggressive drums mixed high in the sound and Beck’s equally aggressive harp blowing. The song is propelled along pretty forcefully compared to the rest of the album; heavy metal for when the power goes out. Lead Belly would approve… maybe even of the yodeling-cum-tuneless-wailing Beck engages in towards the end.
(Beck recorded a song during the Mutations sessions, the instrumental “Black Balloon”, on which he played all the instruments and which apparently got its title from the lyrics of “Bottle Of Blues”.)
9. “O Maria”
Opening with some spooky-sounding piano stabs, “O Maria” brings a kind of stoned-bar-band-going-Celtic vibe to the album; it’s a minor-chord near-dirge oozing with snaky melodies and curiously fascinating lyrics, coming in from a more philosophical angle than other Mutations tracks. Beck’s vocals are particularly mysterious and intimate on this track.
A few strange chords here and there color an otherwise conventional sequence, while the inebriated-sounding band sloshes around like a queasy ship’s crew in rough seas. The piano pops and clicks along with acoustic guitar, while a muted trumpet comes in for an unexpected solo and a crisp 12-string acoustic turns in another solo, a brief moment of stark clarity — a glimpsed mermaid on the rocks, maybe.
Sounding like a sailor reminiscing about a graveyard — or a ghost reminiscing about life at sea — the lyrics divert more attention away from the music than several other Mutations tracks, and they include one of the album’s more striking observations:
Death creeps in slow
‘Til you feel safe in his arms
Beck also provides one of the album’s more important clues for those inclined to Make Sense Of It All — a strange reference to the cobwebs and strange found growing all over the album:
I’ve been looking for my shadow
But this place is so bright and so clean
So, here at least, the writer hasn’t been dragged down into the decaying earth against his will, and hasn’t been visited by unbidden spirits — no, he’s fighting against clarity and light to find a comfortable shadow. Huh. To discover more about himself? Because it’s cozy there? Something else? No reason at all? Whichever interpretation you like, it’s a great lyric and the funereal pace of the song couldn’t be more appropriate. “O Maria” would seem to have downer written all over it, but it avoids that label in favor of something more affirming somehow. Leave it to Beck to win the war after losing every battle.
10. “Sing It Again”
Psychedelia, folk and country duke it out lethargically on this very pared-down track, one of the simplest on the album. A wandering slide guitar echoes here and there, quiet drums pulse gently way underneath the mix, and the acoustic guitars eschew chords for a few scattered notes, signposts for a similar-sounding piano.
Beck’s single-tracked vocal is stark, and like most of the rest of the album, intimate. There is a great part where the melody rises up unexpectedly (“If it’s meant…”) and the song reaches a plateau in this way that other songs don’t bother striving for.
Ultimately, this is Mutations’s least-developed song, and seems to mostly be a showcase for some very fine instrumental interplay. If the album were a Thanksgiving dinner, “Sing It Again” would be the green beans. Good, vital even in their way, but merely a bit of blandness to allow you to catch your breath.
In the great tradition of final album tracks, “Static” doesn’t concern itself with emotional details or with intricate or new musical experimentation; instead it addresses more general themes lyrically and plays it safer sonically. It’s not “Tomorrow Never Knows”, it’s more like “Life Is Grand” from Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
With its summing-it-all-up vibe and reliably steady pace, “Static” does actually recall the album’s more psychedelic moments, with a heavily echoing single-string slide guitar reaching way up high on the neck, like a weirdly colored flickering light spotlighting some kind of night circus after most of the crowds have left and the peanut shells and crushed plastic cups are scattered around on the ground.
The centerpiece of the song is halfway through when things get more strident: a low buzz suddenly starts feeding back while Beck’s voice rises in tone, volume and passion, bursting through the otherwise-complacent groove of the main song:
But the static in your mind
Leaves you hollow and unkind
Elsewhere the song is full of simplistic aphorisms and gently prodding challenges to not get bogged down in negativity but give… well, peace a chance. At least within yourself.
“Static” sums up the album by managing to reflect Mutations’s repertorial focus on situational emotional states without getting solipsistic in the least. If the rest of Mutations is journalism, its last track is an opinion column. And oh yeah, it is psychedelic in a very satisfying, organic way.
And if you’re interested, “Static” leads very well back into the album’s first song, “Cold Brains”. Why stop the trip after one listen?
Mutations by Beck
“Nobody’s Fault But My Own”
“We Live Again”
“Bottle Of Blues”
“Sing It Again”