Some Intriguing ‘Mutations’

Everybody from Courtney Love to Marilyn Manson is getting in touch with his or her inner pop self, so why not Beck?

Eschewing samples and beats in favor of recording live in the studio with his touring band, he has crafted a collection of psychedelic folk-rock and country-flavored waltzes (plus one Latin-spiced ditty, “Tropicalia”) that couldn’t have wandered much farther from 1996’s multi-platinum, critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning “Odelay.”

Where the mood of that album was celebratory, modern and often satiric, “Mutations” is reflective and old-fashioned, and bears at least the appearance of sincerity. Intended to satisfy Beck’s desire to do something different after more than two years of flogging “Odelay” in concert, it presents yet another fully formed creative facet we haven’t seen before.

While not exactly linear, the lyrics offer less pop-culture sloganeering and more Dylan-esque poetry, as bleak images of despair, isolation and decay sharply contrast with pretty, Beatle-esque melodies on such tracks as “Nobody’s Fault but My Own” and the kaleidoscopic, reverb-laden “Cold Brains.”


Beck also actually sings, rather than employ his usual deadpan vocals, in an occasionally wobbly baritone that still sounds slightly detached. But there’s a warmth to his voice that draws you in, grounding even such surreal numbers as the Zen ballad “We Live Again.” In a much more subtle way, these songs ultimately insinuate themselves as insistently as “Where It’s At” or “Devils Haircut.”

Longtime fans will expect and welcome this type of stylistic gyration from Beck, whose muse has led him on a winding path through primitive folk-blues and quirky hip-hop. But those who discovered him with “Odelay” may not take to this--which is why it makes good marketing sense for the label to treat this as something other than the real follow-up to “Odelay” and not risk bucking expectations. But it’s absurd to so pointedly compartmentalize a musician whose success in pushing creative boundaries has made his reputation.