Beck is back and his new CD, Mutations is just so damn stunning.
On the new release, he opts for a sparse sound. Nearly every track is stripped down; a handful of instruments weave deftly around a single acoustic guitar. The production is laid back and restrained, creating an ambiance of no-heavy-lifting that compliments Beck's casual, almost lazy-sounding voice.
Though the vocals may be relaxed, the music is inspiring. The brilliance of Beck's compositions capture the listener's attention. The clever and imaginative lyrics hold it in queue while the playful but adept delivery of the material finishes the job.
Beck Hansen (not to be confused with Tayler, Isaac or Marilyn) plays an assortment of instruments on Mutations, including guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, synthesizer and glockenspiel -- and he does so with simplicity and adroit dexterity.
The crew of background players on the record are well chosen and also effective. The inclusion of sitar, for example -- courtesy of Warren Klein, on "Nobody's Fault But My Own" -- adds a dreamy, lilting quality to Beck's sleepy baritone. The castanets on "Lazy Flies" (no credit given) and harpsichord (played by Roger Joseph Manning Jr.) on "We Live Again" add to the quirky, good humor of these songs. On the country-tinged "Sing It Again," I could swear I hear a pedal steel, although, once again, none is mentioned in the liner notes.
Essentially, songs are what Beck is all about, an appealing and tuneful voice, notwithstanding. Calling him a gifted songwriter, however, somehow seems an understatement akin to applying the same label to Dylan or the late John Lennon. I know these comparisons may be a bit intense but that's the whole point. Beck's lyrical phrases leap out at you, teasing the inner and outer cortexes of your mind. His compositions are filled with "syphilis patients on brochure vacations," "streets... where tourists snore and decay," and "tired soldiers with nothing to shoot."
His tunes are unpredictable but catchy. The melodies sound familiar enough to grab you at first listen and yet -- through a twist here, a turn of the phrase there -- the songs sound fresh as anything on the air waves today. His songwriting is skilled and effortless, arty yet unpretentious. And the music has a good-natured undercurrent to it that makes his treatment of some of the most depressing topics -- death, alcoholism, betrayal -- a highly enjoyable listen.
One of the most charming things about the artist is his humility in light of constant reinforcement to his ego from rave reviews such as the one yours truly is currently cranking out. In a recent promotional interview, Beck was asked how he felt about having succeeded in just about every effort to date. "It depends how you define success," he responded. "I've fallen over a lot cliffs along the way. I guess you can say I've had a lot of successful car crashes." Along these lines, it appears that Beck has another successful car crash to chalk up -- if not a downright head-on collision.