Wherein Beck essays the possibilities of being both over-determined and half-baked...

Beck is by nature, it seems, over-determined and half-baked, and sometimes it works to great effect. "Loser" was a stroke—the mewling slap-dash verses cohering into a chorus both monster and somehow meaningful. He became the moment and created the moment, which is a tough synthesis to pull off. Even tougher to survive...

But Beck is blessed with an awareness of these tricks of the trade, probably thanks to his exposure to his grandfather's Fluxus friends, a loose coterie who knew something about the holy hoodwink.

So "Mellow Gold" soldiered on in the shadow of its seminal single, but never really managed to muster itself out of the moment. Some who were not really paying attention whispered "one-hit wonder"—others just scratched their heads and wondered what would come next.

What came next, in real pop terms, was "Odelay" and it was a funhouse. Now, funhouses work best when they're over-determined. When you don't know what's around the corner, but you trust that the folks in charge have put something there to trip you up. When the ghost in front of you lets out a shriek that you hear over your shoulder. When the face in the mirror belongs to someone else...

"Odelay" pulled off all these tricks masterfully. Shake your ass, make you laugh, break your heart. Rarely has the challenge of escaping the moment been so well met. Which puts us in a strange position now.

Though it does not carry the social freight that "Loser" was burdened with, "Odelay" does share with it the weight of being a masterpiece. So, as he followed "Mellow Gold" with some low key releases, "Mutations" finds Beck attempting to ply the same strategy.

I say attempting because the landscape is different now. "Odelay" sold a ton, and you can bet DGC is hot for product three years on. So as Beck's camp made down-playing "not-a-follow-up" noises, DGC wrangled its release away from the indies and positioned it as holiday product. And thus is a follow-up born...

Beck talked "Mutations" up as space-age folk, and there is much fitting that description on display. The opener "Cold Brains" showcases the general melancholic tenor of the album, with some attendant beeps and blips, and a harmonica solo. Yeah, I guess that's space-age folk alright...

"Nobody's Fault But My Own" follows, and illustrates a disturbing (let's not call it a) trend by sopping to the H.O.R.D.E-Dave Matthews Band crew that Beck spent some of the last couple of years slogging around with. It's got big Bic-waving arena self-pity ballad written all over it. Think "Behind Blue Eyes" for a more sensitive age, and shudder. Of course, it's one of two tracks our friends at DGC have stickered on the CD- "Featuring 'Nobody's Fault But My Own'...

...and 'Tropicalia' ", which is both "tropical" and "ia". It's a sort of follow-up (those words again) to "Deadweight" from the "A Life Less Ordinary" soundtrack, and lots of fun. Works great on a car radio, though it's not as loose as it wants to be.

And that's sort of a thumbnail description for the whole of "Mutations"—it's a rather conservative affair. Whereas "Odelay" was an over-determined funhouse, this is an over-determined square room. And it's very hard to get lost in a square room.

Can't wait for the follow-up, though...

Doug Parker

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