Beck returns with “Mutations,” the follow-up to the overflowing musical salad bar that was 1996’s deadpan-cheeky, Grammy-winning “Odelay.” Steeped in zeitgeist and samples, Odelay left a sizable footprint on the cultural beachhead. But rather than try to top it, Beck has chosen to revisit his long-standing love of acoustic music. “Mutations” is a deliberately low-key procession of folkish rambles that aren’t interested in any grand statements. In terms of historical context, think of Bruce Springsteen releasing the smaller, more intimate “Tunnel of Love” after “Born in the U.S.A.” unintentionally made him a symbol of American brawn and macho.
“Mutations” is a collection of tumblin’- tumbleweeds, mellow-Acapulco-gold melodies on which Beck’s drowsy voice and strummed guitar are framed by the lazy whine of a pedal steel, the wheeze of a harmonica, the occasional trumpet, and the bleeps and burps of old-school synthesizers. (In Beck’s universe, an old-fangled Moog synth is a traditional instrument.) It’s folk music littered with the new sonic pollution, and it has an amiable, low-rent charm. With its sitar buzzing around like a border-town mosquito, the sad-sack love lament “Nobody’s Fault but My Own” has a drony, sonorous melancholy. “Dead Melodies” feels ripe for a late-night cantina, while “We Live Again” has a haunted frailty, like a music box playing in a graveyard.
Some of Beck’s loveliest work has been in this unplugged vein; the form brings out a sweet, guileless side of his personality. Unfortunately, what’s entered the picture since Beck’s days as a blues-picking bar folkie is affectation. The corny barroom-piano trills in “Cancelled Check,” the bossa nova lounge-folk groove of “Tropicalia,” even his occasionally stilted delivery — all bespeak a self-consciousness (even for a supremely self-aware musician like Beck) that wasn’t heard in past ballads like the tender, violin-laced acoustic 1994 B side “Totally Konfused.” The lyrics, most of them typically absurdist, won’t pull you in either. We wouldn’t want (or expect) Beck to transform himself into the male Jewel. But in this down-home scenario, admittedly clever lines like “I’ve been looking for my shadow/But this place is so bright and so clean” just aren’t satisfying enough. “Mutations” is like an experimental indie film — a pleasant, and welcome, diversion that’s more important for where it’s at than for what it is.