Whether by preference or rationalization, slacker victims trumpet their dropout status with dilapidated jeans, greasy hair and a sarcastic, defeatist posture. Enter 23-year-old Beck singing, “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” on “Loser,” the ultracatchy opening track on this fascinating debut. Just to underline the point, a sampled George Bush whines, “I’m a driver. I’m a winner.”
Wielding a drum machine, a sampler, an acoustic guitar and such lines as “My tongue is a piece of wax falling on a termite who’s choking on the splinters,” Beck makes ultrasurreal hip-hop-folk that harkens back to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” His lurching warble, warped by slowed-down effects and distortion, evinces the sort of catatonic cool borne of too many bong tokes and nitrous hits. And Beck is very much of his generation — he apparently doesn’t even mind that boomers will confuse him with a certain hallowed British guitar hero.
The much-hyped Mellow Gold isn’t the knockout punch insiders hoped for. Several throwaways compromise the album, and nothing else is quite as catchy as “Loser.” But virtually everything embodies the stereotypically manic-depressive slacker mind-set. “Pay No Mind” is a poignant apathy anthem that sounds positively Dylanesque. The take-this-McJob-and-shove-it theme of “Soul Suckin Jerk” gives way to bilious bursts like “Mutherfuker” and “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs,” only to lapse into the resigned dreamscape of “Steal My Body Home” or the melancholic majesty of “Blackhole.”
Even the do-it-yourself aspect of the album, which was recorded on 8-track in Beck’s living room, speaks of lowered expectations, and yet there’s a sense of the empowerment derived from that cheap high technology. Beck’s verbal collages get close to the truth of his milieu and our times. Think of it as generational code or stream of unconsciousness. But it’s really called poetry.