Where could Beck go after the brain-busting audacity of 1996’s Odelay? The answer is inwards. Yet this more subdued outing has its own share of winking zigs and zags. Mutations sees the Los Angeles native continue to reframe his stylistic homages with absurdist wordplay and wonky touches—only more quietly this time. Linking up with trusted Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Beck also invites in enough studio gloss and soft psychedelic flourishes to make this ballad-leaning material considerably lusher than the lo-fi ruminations of 1994’s One Foot in the Grave. That means synths and strings mingle happily with harpsichord and harmonica, even before Beck begins to dabble freely across genre lines. Opener “Cold Brains” leisurely unspools as deadpan cosmic folk, while “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” maintains the trippy streak with drawling sitar washes. The latter has become one of Beck’s most enduring tunes, with Marianne Faithfull covering it for her 2002 album Kissin Time. Kissed with shakers and castanets, “Lazy Flies” brandishes some of his most vividly abstract lyrics—“They’re chewing dried meat in a house of disrepute/The dust of opiates and syphilis patients on brochure vacations”—while musical motifs flutter in and out of frame with whimsical irregularity. As for those sidelong tributes to other genres? “Canceled Check” sidles up to honky tonk with steel guitar and saloon-style piano, before unsteady horns foreshadow a slip into knowing disarray. “Tropicalia” takes both its name and vibe from the late-1960s Brazilian fusion of bossa nova, psych, and other outside elements, while “O Maria” sits comfortably between classic New Orleans R&B and early Randy Newman. The slow and open “Sing It Again” verges on flamenco-style guitar, whereas “Bottle of Blues” plays into the Dylan-esque patchwork quality of its lyrics. Initially presented as a hidden track, the harder-rocking outlier “Diamond Bollocks” openly flirts with crunchy glam rock and Beach Boys harmonies. Muted in comparison to the extroverted channel-surfing of Mellow Gold and Odelay, Mutations proved that Beck could experiment on a more subliminal level—and even pluck some unexpected heartstrings amidst all of that self-awareness. He would return to this mode to great effect for 2002’s breakup record Sea Change and 2014’s richly embellished Morning Phase. From the guy who first introduced himself to the world as a loser, that cozy batch of albums provides a strong argument for his actual status as a timeless, deeply nuanced songwriter.

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