In just over a minute the Becklash begins. That’s about how long— one minute— it takes Beck to get to the secret track at the end of his new Mutations, and if we look at the curve of time passing before secret track-
appearances over his last few records, we see it’s been steepening frightfully— five minutes before the alien gut rumbles that end Stereopathetic Soul Manure, two minutes on Odelay before the synthesizer starts programming itself. But it’s about a minute on Mutations before the hidden number begins, and when it does a tune comes on. Can this be? It feels like the end of an era. Might as well be the ending of a normal album or something.
Some of his gestures are starting to look like bits, and people are calling him on it. In a recent New Yorker Beck was taken to task for his too-cute send-ups of black culture meant purely to ingratiate himself with white hipsters and was called a light-rock artist. The history of Mutations is likely to give Beck-biters inspiration: when he signed with Geffen, Beck thought he had a great deal that allowed him to continue recording for indie labels. That’s why the year the major put out Mellow Gold, Flipside got the awesome Stereopathetic Soul Manure and K got One Foot in the Grave. But all that happened before Odelay took off, and Beck went on an endless roadtrip that secured him a solid foothold in the marketplace from now until Congress impeaches Jesse Ventura. Damned if Geffen’s gonna let him give the shit away again. They snatched this one out of indie Bong Load’s hands, and Beck’s enough of a team player that if he’s unhappy, he’s keeping it to himself.
On an indie, Mutations would have felt like a neat side-excursion, a session that (even with producer of Radiohead’s OK Computer Nigel Godrich at the boards) breathes, that’s footloose and sample free, without any singles popping off. Would have been a gimme. Now, however, Geffen is in the awkward position of wanting to make money off the new Beck album while telling the world that it really isn’t a new Beck album but rather a betweenie, and leaving the artist in interviews swimming forward and backward at the same time like a jellyfish in a whirlpool.
But if the back story to Mutations gives Beck-benchers ammo, the music itself is timed perfectly to shear the devil’s haircuts off the doubters. This isn’t the best record Beck’s ever made and yet it’s a huge step forward and will probably sound better in five years than Odelay. Good songs have a way of sticking. Not for nothing does he include a lyric sheet for the first time, does he friggin’ sing (with a Brit accent even!), does he not crack a single sidewise smirk the whole time. Up to now Beck’s been a surrogate shopper for his fans, a consummate consumer going apeshit in the supermarket of sound, telegraphing his excitement at the abundance of noises over the store intercom. With Mutations he sounds glutted and sad. This album’s definitely a rainy Saturday afternoon home with the cats, but sometimes it’s like that, you know?
He’s following the path role models the Beastie Boys established after they collaborated with the sample-addled Dust Brothers: come back flaunting songcraft and the organic interaction among musicians in the studio, i.e., show the world who the boss is. I don’t think the boss could have written tunes, mostly ballads, like this a few years ago, not to mention had the confidence to duck huge pop payoffs. These songs twist and sway to avoid hooks and fat choruses; they draw you in with melody and chord changes and most of all with a new focus on emotion. Oh yeah, emotion— this is the first Beck album actually that doesn’t run away from feeling things, or blow shit up right after saying something, a record that isn’t too cool to foreground feelings. Which are pretty shipwrecked: exhaustion and sourness, basically, as if he’d gone from celebrating the possibilities of all the noise that ran together in his music to wistfully remarking on the impossibility of it meaning very much.
“It’s a perfect day to lock yourself inside,” he lightly croaks on the would-be power ballad “Static,” sad as a leaking beanbag chair. On “We Live Again,” over foppish and breezy harpsichord clatter he sings, “Over the hill a desolate wind/Turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy.” Then he really gets unhappy on “Bottle of Blues,” lamenting “the crippled psalms of an age that won’t thaw/Are ringing in my ears.” But are these truly dark days or just how you feel after touring with the Dave Matthews Band? His singing is gentle enough to obscure the answer, and Roger Manning playing his synthesizer like he was wearing lace undies hardly helps clarify things.
Beneath all the broken-record fragments and awesome gestures of Odelay were some of the same ideas he’s stretching out on here, but where before they were just J.G. Ballard bubblegum (to anyone who even noticed the words), now they add up. The recurring images of impotence and animals running wild, of drunk libertines and carousing matrons, convey a poisoned weariness that isn’t at all “fresh” or “fly.” He hasn’t told us where they come from but give him some time. And I guarantee you this: even if he comes back with Odelay-Hee-Hoo, the jag he’s on here cannot be squeezed back into the tube. The problem with paring away your ambiguities is that the ones you hold onto stand out all the more.
And some ambiguities you gotta cling to. Like the one about making one of the strongest moments on the record that secret track at the end, the single time he and his band make like human samplers— they start out with this foofy Austin Powerspop, then successively essay White Album sludge . . . Who breakdown . . . bird calls . . . a Nirvana bassline . . . and Beck chiming in after all the style-mongering with “looking back at some dead world that looked so new.” It’s like he’s rehearsing a kiss-off to the two turntables and the microphones.
Not that he’s ready to commit to sincerity. In words that strike me as overly reassuring, Beck’s vowing to come back next time— you know, on the real album, heh heh— with the samplers and the shades and a vibe that he swears won’t be such a downer. Bet it’ll be great too. But I also bet the records after that sound more like Mutations.