The Follow-Up: Beck’s Evolution From ‘Odelay’ Into ‘Mutations’
In ‘The Follow-Up,’ we take a look back at the album that came right after an artist's most iconic record. In this installment, we spotlight Beck's 1998 album, 'Mutations,' which came after his hugely successful 'Odelay.'
After pummeling us for about 49 straight minutes with everything from futuristic funk (‘Devil’s Haircut’), country-fried hip-hop (‘Hotwax’), and self-referential noise rock (‘Novacane’), Beck ended his 1996 hit factory ‘Odelay’ with the meandering acoustic ballad, ‘Ramshackle.’ A lovely song but a somber sore thumb on an otherwise pre-made party mix, it actually provided a hidden glimpse into what we could expect next from the ‘90s buzziest poet laureate.
‘Odelay’ had been a success by any metric. Not only did its fearless invention and actual follow-through provide tangible evidence that Beck Hansen was no one-hit wonder despite all of the novelty aspects lumped into his breakthrough 1994 single, ‘Loser,’ the eclectic ‘Odelay’ (which many don’t realize was already his fifth album) peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 on its way to selling 2 million copies. It also earned Beck widespread critical acclaim and Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Album and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Quirky and hysterical videos for singles ‘Where It’s At’ and ‘The New Pollution’ helped Beck cultivate a persona of a superfly nerd capable of somehow making himself look ridiculous -- but also like the potential coolest white boy on the planet.
But after two years in support of ‘Odelay,’ Beck returned home to Los Angeles in 1998 and immediately jumped into the studio to record a batch of stripped-down, spacey folk songs with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The story goes that Beck had received permission from his major label, Geffen, to release the album on the independent Bong Load Custom Records purely as an exercise in songwriting for Beck -- who, let's face it, had been breakdancing onstage since 1994. But once Geffen heard ‘Mutations,’ the suits reportedly swooped in and decided to release it after all. All the hubbub -- along with the sharp musical left turn the album took -- led to questions of whether or not it would qualify as an “official” follow-up to ‘Odelay.’ But from the way Beck spoke about it, there was never anything “unofficial” about ‘Mutations.’
“I think I had a sense I didn’t wanna just be in one bag, you know? One sound. One kind of music,” he said in an interview. “I was going through a sort of acoustic time. I was living without electricity for about 15 weeks. I wanted to do something really just straight, you know? These are the songs. It’s very simple. They’re not dressed up. It’s not really hiding behind anything.”
Recording with his touring band -- the first time he’d ever recorded with a band at all -- he churned out a dozen songs for the album in just two weeks. That would be an impressive enough feat all on its own, but also consider that each song is conceptually and sonically different from the next.
The album opens with ‘Cold Brains,’ probably the least known of the three singles released from the LP. Slow as molasses -- at least compared to the breakneck speed of ‘Odelay’ -- the song is like country music on the moon, revolving around accentuated wah-wah guitar with lyrics that resided on the decidedly somber end of the Beck lyrical spectrum (“We ride disowned / corroded to the bone”) and -- everybody’s favorite: not one, but two harmonica solos.
Anyone eagerly expecting ‘Where It’s At Again’ had to have been at least a little put off.
Anyone eagerly expecting ‘Where It’s At Again’ had to have been at least a little put off. But knowing that you can’t really know Beck, putting a relative downer of a song like that front and center could’ve just been a trick -- a way to surprise you with more unpredictable (and thus, predictable) Beck music. But, instead, those who skipped ahead were greeted with the even slower, more acoustic, more somber ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own.’ Hopefully they didn’t immediately skip to track three.
‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’ is one of Beck’s most beloved, most beautiful songs just from a lyric and melody standpoint, but the production of the song -- which further reveals itself upon repeated listenings -- is where the true genius of ‘Mutations’ lies. The song gradually grows from sparse and droning backing sounds into a swelling and soothing orchestral chorus tinged with sitar and other Eastern instrumentation. It was another single the album produced -- and it’s worth noting that Beck didn’t make any videos for ‘Mutations.’ The only visual we had to accompany these disparate sounds was the album art featuring the singer emerging from plastic wrap.
Throughout the album, Beck touches on countless genres -- none of which included hip-hop or dance-inspired pop. ‘Lazy Flies’ is upbeat and exotic with pulsing psychedelic guitar. ‘Canceled Check’ is an authentic, old-timey country tune pulled straight from a spaghetti Western that scatters off into off-time drumming and random sound effects. ‘Bottle of Blues’ is the sort of modern Delta Blues that makes it immediately evident that without Beck, there could never have been a Jack White. ‘We Live Again’ is one of several songs to prominently feature harpsichord. Even ‘Tropicalia,’ the other single, sounds nothing like anything else on the album (if anything, it resembled his song, 'Deadweight,' from the 'A Life Less Ordinary' soundtrack) with its unfettered Latin influence and Moroccan feel.
Not entirely that surprising, 'Mutations' -- released in November 1998 -- was nowhere near as commercially successful as 'Odelay,' but part of that blame has to fall to Geffen for not completely being able to wrap their head around marketing it properly. It peaked at No. 13 in the U.S. and was certified Gold, but the lack of videos, catchy radio-friendly singles and, really, Beck's complete change in course definitely threw off more its fair share of confused listeners. But the album was another critical darling, netting him his second Grammy for Best Alternative Album.
The true greatness of 'Mutations' isn't in what it did at the time, it's in what it did for Beck's career as a whole. Previously painted as the spokesman for the 'slacker' generation, thanks largely to narrow-minded people taking 'Loser' way too literally, Beck showed he could transform into a more serious singer-songwriter if that's where the music leads him. He maintained his bizarre imagery and lyrical wit, but provided far more pointed (or at least occasionally less randomly abstract) subject matter. And although each of the songs on 'Mutations' had easily discernible influences from different sources in both location and time, each of Beck's compositions feel fresh, innovative and wholly his own. It opened the door for him to go even further into revelatory, stripped down confessionalism with 2002's brilliant 'Sea Change.'
Part of being an experimentalist is following your instincts, and it's clear that Beck's instincts should rarely be questioned.
But it also blew away any notion that anything Beck writes could ever be discounted as "not official." Part of being an experimentalist is following your instincts, and it's clear that Beck's instincts should rarely be questioned. They've taken him back to 'Odelay'-style robot funk (2005's 'Guero'), through breezy retro (2008's Danger Mouse-produced 'Modern Guilt') and back to more straight-ahead songwriting with this year's 'Morning Phase.'
The funny thing is that, just like he did with the last song on 'Odelay,' he hinted at that future dexterity with the last song on 'Mutations,' too. After 11 tracks of Brian Wilson-type sonic indulgence that had to be frustrating to many, he finishes with 'Diamond Bollocks' -- the closest thing to anything on 'Odelay' with actual electric guitar, booming drums and electronic flourishes. While it sticks out on 'Mutations,' it would've fit neatly onto Beck's next album, 1999's funk and hip-hop handbook, 'Midnite Vultures.' It proves that, once again, Beck was one step ahead of all of us -- and possibly even himself.