In 1998, Mutations may have been Beck’s most cohesive album to date, but it was also his most nuanced and polished.
Arriving on the heels of Beck’s breakthrough album, Odelay, the L.A. singer-songwriter’s Mutations veered away from its predecessor’s funk and hip-hop influenced pastiche in favor of a more languid aesthetic tinged with ‘60s folk, bossa nova and alt-country elements. Though it doesn’t traverse the same kind of personal terrain as the heartache and desperation found on 2002’s Sea Change eventually would, Mutations nevertheless highlights a dark streak that ripples through Beck’s songwriting, one that up to that point had been often overshadowed by his penchant for shambolic quirk.
Throughout Mutations, Beck juxtaposes lyrics shrouded in an atmosphere of death and decay with measured, tuneful melodies that possess a similar meditative beauty to Sea Change and it’s 2014 (and somewhat overrated) companion album, Morning Phase. That’s not to say that he blunts his tendency toward pointed, off-kilter imagery here. Amid gently strummed acoustic guitar and the swish of maracas on “Lazy Flies,” Beck sets a scene both offbeat and immensely seedy, singing through multi-tracked vocals about “syphilis patients on brochure vacations” and “matrons and gigolos” that “carouse in the parlor.” He takes the grim imagery to apocalyptic extremes on “Dead Melodies,” singing over the track’s delicate, music-box-like melody about “cinders and chaff” that “laugh at the moon” and cackling night birds “rotting like apples on trees;” while on “Cold Brains” he sings of curses, hearses and being “corroded to the bone.”
But while Beck was previously often content to hide behind this sort of imaginative if enigmatic imagery, here he displays the insightful self-analysis that would work its way into some of his later efforts, particularly on the mournful “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” A sense of heartache and futility pervades the otherwise musically upbeat, alt-country-drenched “Bottle of Blues,” in which he sings of “holding hands with an impotent dream.” Though the album, musically, isn’t anywhere near as wildly eclectic as Odelay, Beck still borrows from numerous influences throughout. “Tropicalia” marks the album’s liveliest track, as he draws from a professed lifelong interest in Brazilian music, infusing the track with a jaunty bossa nova sound, and singing of a sleepy hotspot where “tourists snore and decay.” Throughout the track, he expresses his sourness toward both love and wanderlust, declaring that the former is a “poverty you couldn’t sell” and the latter will only lead to “misery” in “vague hotels.” Interestingly, it’s the only track on the album in which Beck doesn’t play any instruments himself.
In 1998, Mutations may have been Beck’s most cohesive album to date, but it was also his most nuanced and polished. This comes as some surprise given that he hammered out these 14 tracks—many of them songs he’d tinkered with for years—over a mere two-week span in the studio. Beck brought in Nigel Godrich—who was just coming off his work on Radiohead’s OK Computer the previous year—to produce, and, given Godrich’s demanding schedule at the time, the album came together quickly. This approach imbued the album with a live-performance feel that contrasts the aural collage of Beck’s previous records. Mutations would go on to win a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance, but it remains one of Beck’s more easily overlooked records in retrospect, partially due to its lack of any knockout singles, and because it diverged so thoroughly from the aesthetic he established on Odelay. Followed by the somewhat divisive return to oddball experimentation on 1999’s Midnite Vultures and 2002’s melancholic gem Sea Change, Mutations tends to get lost in the shuffle. As Beck has now reached a place in his over quarter-century career where he’s churning out such listless efforts as last year’s wholly bland Colors, it’s a pleasure to revisit a period from his prime when songs about destruction and decay felt so vibrant and vital.