t would be an unfair to start this review without a disclaimer. I’m an old school Beck fan, I was drawn into Mellow Gold and Stereopathetic Soul Manure’s chaotic, fragmented and thoroughly warped glee, the humor and manic pastiche nature of Odelay, and the lo-fi, raw full-heartedness of One Foot in the Grave.
Mutations was a big change for Beck. Firstly, it was the first time contract issues had changed the way he was going to release an album (as it was original penned as a low-scale indie release ala One Foot in the Grave, but Geffen insisted they released it proper). Secondly, it was the first time an outsider presence was felt- in terms of production- and the king of gleam, Nigel Goldrich made his presence felt very strongly. It was a nice, well-developed and pleasant album. Something we didn’t really expect from the writer of such bizarre songs as his original single “MTV Makes Me Wanna Smoke Crack” and the demented Golden Feelings number “Special People”. Though something of a commercial failure, it did help to ferment Beck’s indie fan-base and even managed to attract a few new fans.
So now Beck provides a follow-up of sorts (after 1999s Dust-Brothers produced pseudo-funk odessey Midnite Vultures, which saw him attempting to create the Prince-inspired album he’d always hinted at). Citing a British folk influence (most notably Nick Drake) as his stylistic approach this time around and reinstating Goldrich behind the desk.
Beck has been very open and honest about how the album was a reflection of his current relationship problems, after breaking up with his long-time girlfriend earlier this year. Thankfully though a spark of hope shines through the somber, lonesome approach of the lyrics. Tracks like the opener “The Golden Age” literally sparkle with Goldrich’s over-the-top production – “the sun don’t shine, even when its day..” sounds positively dreamy over a thick layer of backing hum, acoustic guitar and gentle, wilting keys. The first highlight of the album though is from quite a left-field source. “Paper Tiger” mixes laid-back funk reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg with a soaring string section and Beck’s smooth vocal approach. The drums scatter while a trembling, funky bass-riff lays the ground work for the string section to lead. It should be a great lead-off single.
Beck’s vocals are sturdy, employing his soft, whispered sing-speak approach more often than not – which is perfectly apt for the downbeat “Lonesome Tears”. The song is driven again by a dominant string section, giving a thoroughly dramatic feel. Sadly, Beck’s deep falsetto and forced a cappella, fails to really make an appearance on the album and Beck stays faithful to his folk contemporaries.
Previously on One Foot in the Grave "All in Your Mind" has found its way back onto a full length album, and unfortunately the more prevalent production has stripped this precious number of a great deal of its original impact. Beck's voice still sounds fresh and open, but the addition of piano, whispy backing sounds and drumming (no matter how downbeat) does nothing but smooth over the raw and exposed feeling of the brilliant original. Mood is something that comes in spades on "Round the Bend", though. A backing of string fades in and out in positively dreamy fashion.
“Sunday Sun” sounds almost out of place on the album, pounding piano and shuffling percussion harks back to Mutations highlight “Tropicalia”. Sitar, a chorus of backing hums, and Beck’s vocals seems far removed from the rest of the album, and it drills in the point by ending with one of Beck’s trademark noise freak outs, before the reflective finale “Little One” can commence.
Personally I see the album as a grower, it improves on Mutations (which I actually find rather bland at times) with sparkling variation and a depth of emotion Beck seldom seems to achieve. But I can’t help but feel that Beck would be better served going back and listening to One Foot in the Grave a few more times. With that said though, the song writing is certainly very strong, and there are some pure catchy numbers on the album. Overall it’s a pretty good addition to Beck’s catalogue, firmly routed in his “serious” territory.
Reviewed by: Chris Andrews
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01