Music: Mutations (Beck, 1998)

As I write this, a huge portion of the Canadian wilderness is engulfed in flames and air currents have carried the smoke south of the 49th parallel, resulting in extremely poor air quality across the northeastern United States.  This has resulted in a weird haze that has noticeably changed the strength, and even hue, of the sunlight.  It is sometimes hard to tell the angle the light is coming from, subconsciously making us less aware of what time of day it is.  In every way, we are currently in a miasma.

I like that word, as it is one of those that sounds to my ear like the thing is describes.  It is a word I would use to describe Beck’s 1999 album Mutations, an album that isn’t just a summer album, but one most appropriate for those dog days of the season.  This is music for occupying the horse latitudes, if only in spirit.

And that phrase always makes me think of Spanish galleons suspended in still water.  Back to the horse latitudes, those are the stretches of still water and lack of breezes near the equator.  They were so named because the sailors would sometimes resort to tossing the horses overboard to save water.

Why am I going into all this?  Aside from my usual rambling writing technique, I am trying to set the scene for “Lazy Flies”, my favorite track from what I believe to be the artist’s best album. 

When I listen to this song, I feel blazing heat.  I immediately receive mental images styled like one of those Dali paintings of creatures with impossibly thin, long legs (ever notice how we associate disproportionately tall and thin with hot climates?).  In my mind, the feet of these creatures are obscured by dust and haze.  It is clearly daytime, but we can’t be sure of what time of day it is because of how the light is scattered. 

As for the human occupants of this landscape, they are sweaty, mean and listless.  There’s a glove-clad magistrate who has a whiff of the Inquisition to him.  I don’t think the Inquisition was the same era as the galleons in the golden age of Spanish exploration, but my mind forms a connection there.  There’s a brothel where one can somehow smell venereal diseases in the air.  Jerky-chewing tourists dispassionately observe everything around them.  Everything is dried-out, even the meat.

“Lazy Flies” is the most cinematic of the tracks on this album, though the themes and general sentiment can be found in the opening song.  The first seconds of “Cold Brains” tells us this isn’t going to be Odelay Part 2.  The tempo is sluggish, and I mean that as a compliment.  It’s almost as if the heat is so brutal the track can hardly be bothered to get itself going. 

One of the more obvious threads running through Mutations is death.  In that opening track, we get “a final curse: abandoned hearse” and “a worm of hope/a hangman’s rope”.  And yet not even death is an escape as “We Live Again” only to “grow weary of the end.”  Night birds sing “Dead Melodies”.  And, in that end, we are invited to “lay my bags upon the funeral fires” and “Sing It Again”.  Back to “Lazy Flies”: dead horses are harnessed to ride in the sun.  This album is a grinning cow skull, baking in the desert heat as sand slowly fills its eye sockets.

In writing about music, I don’t believe it is ever possible to fully convey what a work sounds like.  Usually, the best one can do is compare it to other pieces the author hopes they already know.  But I can tell you how this album makes me feel: drifting, disconnected, transient, temporary, fading, outside of time and space, in many places and eras simultaneously. 

“Nobody’s Fault But My Own” is a fogbank in broad daylight, making the light seem to come from all directions evenly.  It is a sensation I only previously experienced listening to the first verse of the mono mix of “Blue Jay Way” by The Beatles.  “We Live Again” is a gentle and genteel dance for the dead in the climactic scene of Carnival of Souls.  “O Maria” is like a song from the Tin Pan Alley revival in pop music of the late 60’s, but slowed down until it is almost a dirge—a dying performance of a photocopy of a photocopy.

Another theme in the album is self-deprecation that, fortunately, never ripens into self-loathing.  I think it’s rather obvious Beck was tiring of fame and the public perception of him as a weirdo and goofball.  Just get a load of the opening lines of the closing number, “Static”: “It’s so easy to laugh at yourself/when all those jokes have already been written/seems like another vain attempt”.  Then there’s line I suspect is about the nature of fame: “On the treadmill you’ll be running forever”.  And the album ends with a line that appears to have the artist walking away from it all: “It’s a perfect day to lock yourself inside forever”.

Which is a great idea at the present time, given the weather situation. In “We Live Again”, Beck sings, “When will children learn to let their wildernesses burn?” I’ll tell you why. It’s because it is surprisingly hard to breathe forest fire smoke even when it is from about a thousand miles away.

Still, being a Beck album that isn’t Sea Change, not all is morbidity here, and a considerable amount of his wry wit still shows through.  Consider “Canceled Check”: “I hate to do this/but you’re a pain in the neck/I thought you knew this/you’re handing me a canceled check”.  Inevitably, this line always makes me think of the scene in The Big Lebowski where he writes a check for a carton of half-and-half.

Even the music perks up for “Tropicalia”, a bouncy bossa-nova number.  Even so, the lyrics won’t let us escape the heat, the humidity and the past: “an equatorial haze”, “a colonial maze”.  And, in the end, there is despair and potential destruction: “Love is a poverty you couldn’t sell/misery waits in vague hotels/to be a victim”.  In this track, it is almost as if the lively tune is for the tourists who don’t or can’t be bothered to see what is going on around the margins.  The lyrics, on the other hand, are the locals living bleak, mundane lives in dirt and squalor.

Despite all this, Mutations has never depressed me.  At most, I have found it to be good company for my melancholy.  Summer is my least favorite season and, though I try to find music that is a more positive soundtrack to the hottest time of the year, I keep coming back to this album and its hazy, surreal soundscapes.  There’s something curiously appealing about not existing for a while, to put a nickel in the graveyard machine, harness a dead horse and try to find the sun, even if I can’t tell for certain where it is.