Beck to the Future

Dec 2, 1998 at 4:00 am
Beck (DGC)

(Note: The following words have as their intended audience the adults, not the kids -- those who grew up on a diet of the Beatles, the Kinks, Elvis Costello, Bruce, the Pretenders, Patti Smith.)

Typically, once strong-headed music fans have made their mind up about an artist -- that the act is not their bag, or just plain sucks -- the rest is history. Dismissal upon dismissal follows, as positive reviews bruise their head against the wall of blind disdain, until all that's left are rigid denials or uninformed guffaws. In simpler terms: If you hated the first single by, say, Beck (or Weezer or Hole or PJ Harvey or Chemical Bros. or Eels, and so on), it follows that you may dismiss all future output by said artist. Granted, in this age of thousands of CD releases each year, necessity does dictate the presence of a filter of some sort.

But such a filter is, at times, a goddamn shame, especially when it comes to Beck. As many of you know, Beck Hansen has been the master of collage, a word juggler who has created glorious cut-and-paste constructions out of samples, beat boxes and melodies, the resulting music being a chaotic Jackson Pollack attack. And if it was too much for your ears -- ears used to space and melody -- chances are you've typecast him. Well, you're making a mistake, because Mutations is right up your alley, an organic gem of a record, a songwriter's showcase in which the artist humbly kneels on one knee and lifts the songs above his head for all to see; if Odelay was the grand finale of a fireworks display, Mutations is a sparkler, wonderful in its simplicity.

Mutations' closest resemblance is to the Kinks' forgotten gem Muswell Hillbillies from 1971: a touch of twang, a rollicking romp through seamless songs. Piano, a touch of trombone, keyboards, harmonica, acoustic, pedal steel and glockenspiel. No samples to clear, no wink of an eye. A record on which the artist known for his tongue-in-cheekiness looks you straight in the eyes and tells you the truth, discarding any crumb of irony: "There is no one, nothing to see/The night is useless and so are we/Because everybody knows/the fabric of folly is falling apart at the seams," he sings on "O Maria."

Everywhere on the record is rust and corrosion, splitting seams and broken guitars, abandoned hearses, canceled checks -- all the detritus and dirt of existence -- piled on top of weary, homegrown melodies, with musicians -- the band he toured with for two years before creating this record -- who are loose and wonderfully familiar with the songwriter and tone he's trying to convey.

When baby boomers decry the state of rock music these days, condescendingly dismissing artists as one-hit wonders and novelty acts who pale in comparison to the glory days of '60s rock, it infuriates me, especially when listening to an artist as remarkable and inspired as Beck is on Mutations. Genius; masterpiece -- all the words that a generation refuses to use for any record save the White Album -- apply here. And about that goddamn 30-year anniversary of the White Album. Wahoo. Rejoice. But I've got a better idea: Let's celebrate the month anniversary of a record that's (gasp!) as good as the White Album, and one for which, in 30 years' time, we'll be celebrating a 30-year anniversary.