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Nashville Scene Spare Change

Beck's latest 'Mutation' finds him turning into a brooding troubadour

By Bill Friskics-Warren

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  There's always some jock in high school who pisses people off by being the best in nearly every sport--even those in which he doesn't compete. This is the guy who'd have the lowest handicap on the golf team if he weren't the school's football star, or who'd run the 4 X 100 relay in track if he weren't the baseball team's lead-off man and center-fielder. To add insult to injury, his grades are good, his dating prospects limitless.

Beck Hansen is the modern-rock equivalent of this high-school superjock. His major-label debut, Mellow Gold, was the Alpha and the Omega of slacker-hop; its successor, Odelay, was a beatwise, post-rock collage that seemed to engage the entire pop universe. Even One Foot in the Grave, the collection of campfire songs he coughed out for Calvin Johnson's K label, exhibited a certain artless command. And now, on what was supposed to have been a between-projects mess-around, Beck dispenses with his irony and his sampler to dispatch Mutations (DGC), a brooding, latter-day troubadour album that should reduce Elliott Smith to tears.

Granted, Beck's pomo posturing can be insufferable, but he's a genius, a musical savant who comes by his facility naturally. His dad, who plays viola on Mutations, is a Hollywood string arranger; his mom ran L.A.'s ultra-hip Masque club in the '70s. His late grandfather, Al Hansen, was active in Fluxus, an experimental art movement that presaged postmodernism, but got his start in vaudeville.

Each of these legacies informs Beck's song-and-dance, but none so much as that of his vaudevillian granddad. In fact, despite its outwardly singer-songwriter cast--a friend of mine hears Donovan, and there's no denying it--Mutations is nothing so much as a stoner cabaret album. Its closest analogy in the rock canon is the series of brilliant albums the Kinks made in the late '60s and early '70s, kaleidoscopic records that indulged Ray Davies' obsession with Music Hall, the Brits' answer to vaudeville.

Of course, 25 years of technological innovation, along with help from coproducer Nigel Godrich--the guy who was at the helm for Radiohead's OK Computer--make Mutations more sophisticated than those Kinks LPs. The album's sonic expansiveness also suggests that Beck has been listening to such indie bands as Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. Nonetheless, Mutations, recorded with Beck's touring group in just two weeks, displays much the same offhand eclecticism and woozy, circus-like charm as the Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies.

"Canceled Check" is a harmonica and steel guitar reverie, "Sing it Again" a drunken, old-timey waltz. "Nobody's Fault But My Own," a trippy blues, features viola, cello, sitar, and tamboura, while a slurring trombone imbues "O Maria" with a ragtime feel, and a harpsichord dainties up "We Live Again." Apart from the Odelay-styled throwdown on the hidden bonus track, nothing on Mutations is as fresh or whacked out as anything on Beck's previous albums. Instead, the record has an organic, lived-in feel. And unifying it all, even the kitchen-sink bossa nova of "Tropicalia," is Beck's lazy baritone, which for once seems like more than just a vehicle for his stream-of-consciousness ramblings.

As with Muswell Hillbillies, Mutations is also a loose concept album. But where Davies' commentary pitted him against encroaching modernity, Beck takes aim at his own subculture, the bohemian enclave of L.A.'s Silverlake district. "Gazing alone through sex-painted windows/Dredging the night/Drunk libertines/Stink like colognes from a newfangled wasteland," he muses on "We Live Again." On "Canceled Check," with a mix of tenderness and scorn, he washes his hands of some thrift-store aesthete, presumably an old friend. "You're so helpless/Your girlfriends think you're a saint/I'll give you a quarter/I'll keep my judgments to myself."

Beck doesn't spare himself from such criticism--he knows he's trashing the same gutter he once reveled in. To the street-corner shuffle of "Bottle of Blues," he sings: "Holding hands with an impotent dream/In a brothel of fake energy/Put a nickel in the graveyard machine/I get higher and lower/Like a tired soldier/With nothing to shoot/And nowhere to lose this bottle of blues."

Images of death and decay crop up all over the album. And if they tend to be melodramatic--Beck is, after all, foremost an entertainer--they're rarely less than felt. In interviews over the past couple of years, the singer has talked at length about the death of his grandfather; he's also lost a number of close friends, several of them to AIDS. The singer, it would seem, is searching for meaning beyond pleasure and notoriety.

Not only that, if "Static," the track that closes Mutations, is any indication, he's also seeking shelter. "Let me drown in a convalescent bliss," he sings. Then, as if talking to himself, he exhorts, "It's been a long time since you've lived/And the static in your mind/Leaves you hollow and unkind.... It's a perfect day to lock yourself inside." Much more than the work of a mellow genius proving that everything he touches turns to gold, Beck's latest finds him wrestling with what it's all worth.

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