Let's call this song "Where it's Not": "There is no one, nothing to see," sings Beck. "The night is useless, and so are we." "Night birds will cackle," he intones on another track, "rotting like apples on trees." The twenty-eight-year-old Beck Hansen's new album, Mutations, brims with death, decay and decrepitude. But in its own peculiar way, it's also his prettiest record to date.
On Mutations – recorded in two weeks last spring – Beck stops talking down to his tuneful side. Compared with the funk collage of 1996's Odelay or the raw anti-folk of 1994's One Foot in the Grave, this is an album of comfort songs. Assisted by Nigel Godrich (who co-produced Radiohead's OK Computer), Beck finally gives his melodies – some of them, like "Cancelled Check" and "Static," as old as his first demo tapes – the full studio treatment, letting them seep into pellucid Sixties folk-pop arrangements.
The most gorgeous example of this is "Nobody's Fault but My Own," a wise, dreamy song traced by sitars and strings arranged by Beck's father, David Campbell. "When the moon is a counterfeit," sings Beck, "better find the one that fits/Better find the one that lights the way for you." It sounds like he's singing about a bad relationship, but he might as well be delivering a personal manifesto; he's doffed the rhinestone suit and James Brown schtick for a new costume.
Mutations is a highly mannered album that references vintage psychedelic folk and rock as overtly as Odelay sampled Schubert. "Lazy Flies" has the same arch, carousel-like tone as the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"; "Bottle of Blues" rolls along like the Kinks at their Muswell Hillbillies rootsiest. The album's affectations can be overpowering: "Lazy Flies" is a Hieronymus Boschpainting populated by "dead horses" and "shadows of sulphur." "We Live Again" is comically dreary; "Oh, I grow weary of the end," Beck moans. Amid the track's harpsichords and elevator-music slothfulness, Beck's insincerity-which we can forgive or enjoy in other contexts – doesn't quite fit; it seems a bit cold and removed.
But even if he doesn't find exactly the right pitch every time, Beck has entered his prime as a songwriter, which is exciting. Few lyricists of his generation are coming up with lines as good as "Doldrums are pounding/Cheapskates are clowning this town" ("Dead Melodies"). It's also a testament to his talent that he has so effortlessly assimilated bossa nova into his repertoire, as he did last year on the single "Deadweight" and as he does here with the wonderful "Tropicalia," a tribute to the progressive Brazilian music of the same name from the Sixties and Seventies. Like Brazilian musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Jorge Ben (who was sampled on "Deadweight"), Beck is a singer-songwriter with a sophisticated sense of rhythm. Here, a silvery, uplifting groove brings to life a macabre carnival in which "tourists snore and decay" and people "dance in a reptile blaze."
It's that combination of the straight for ward and the surreal that Beck has always pursued, and on Mutations he's found some kind of balance. Like the blues singer he once wanted to be, he broods, moans and frets – but there's joy in the music.
This story is from the November 26th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.