WHEN YOUR FIRST album is a subculture-defining masterpiece, what do you do for an encore? Well, if you're Beck, you don't do much. You put out a pair of negligible indie albums and then follow them up two years later with a folkie, collage-hop cakewalk through Slacksville. Odelay turned out to be the Sgt. Pepper of the '90s, an instant "classic" that satisfied a media jones for sampledelia with '60s-style significance. Odelay sounds thinner and thinner as the years pass, even as Beck's geek charisma keeps inflating. Today, the album's one great contribution seems to be the freeing of geeky white rap fans to speak geeky white rap slang without fear of reproach--as long as they did it (nudge, nudge) ironically.
Beck's easier-swinging, weirder-flowing Mutations, recorded live in the studio in two weeks, is as good as or better than its sample-happy, overproduced predecessor, and that will doubtless be interpreted as proof of his supposed late-blooming genius. (Common wisdom has it that "Loser" was just a novelty hit, while "Where It's At" and "Devil's Haircut" proved his artistic ingenuity.) For many people, Beck's vaunted unpredictability was beginning to feel mannered, and evidently one of them was Beck himself. So while Mutations' slower songs and more spacious arrangements refer back to Beck's pre-"Loser" folk phase and 1994's lo-fi junk shop, One Foot in the Grave, they're characteristically smart, well-worn, and affecting.
Despite the album's more directly emotional tone, its lyrics are still pretty opaque: "I get caught up in the moonlight/Reaching out for a rotten egg," he sings in "Canceled Check," and that's the chorus. The out-of-nowhere synthesizer blurts in "Bottle of Blues" and "Static" sound like accidents left on tape rather than the willful echoes of Odelay's overlays. But surprises like these are fast becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Beck's greatest strength is his go-anywhere improvisational habits, but the anarchic edge that made his equally easy-flowing early work so indelible seems to be eroding. While it's understandable that he prefers to be considered a serious musician (nobody that talented wants to be considered a novelty act), there are moments on Mutations that suggest he's straitjacketing himself with another unfortunate role: that of the world's hippest easy-listening artist. Mellow gold, indeed.
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