The Anniversary

Mellow Gold Turns 20

By Tom Breihan / February 28, 2014

Has “Loser” aged well? I honestly have no idea because I can’t hear “Loser” as a song anymore. Years ago, “Loser” entered that “Smells Like Teen Spirit”/”Hey Ya” rarefied air, the territory of massively important songs so overplayed that they become a part of the air, that they become as familiar as the contours of your mother’s face. There are people who never get tired of songs like that, who still give a quiet “fuck yeah” and turn up the volume when those songs come on the radio. I do not understand these people. When you’ve heard a song so many times that every last sonic detail is completely familiar, what more joy can you wring from it? I wish I knew. But if I think about it hard enough, I can still remember the way I felt when “Loser” first began showing up in alt-rock radio rotation, how fun and weird and decentering and beguiling it was. I remember finding out what “soy un perdedor” meant. I remember playground debates over whether the song meant anything at all. I remember hearing a radio DJ joking that calling yourself “Beck” made about as much sense as naming yourself “Stones.” (There was a time when Jeff Beck was way more famous than Beck Hansen.) I remember when a janky slide-guitar loop and a falling-apart breakbeat and a bemused string of non sequiturs sounded like the future. And I remember listening to Mellow Gold for the first time, getting through four or five songs before wondering whether why the fuck I paid money for this, whether the music store would let me return the cassette even though I’d already broken the cellophane. The ’90s were full of amazing, earth-reshaping bands who easily could’ve ended up as one-hit wonders: Radiohead, Green Day, Cypress Hill, Destiny’s Child. But Mellow Gold is a rare case: An artist who seemed determined to consign himself to one-hit-wonder status, and who still somehow failed at it.

As a piece of music, Mellow Gold does not hold up as a classic. It’s not Beck’s best album, and it’s probably not in the top five. There are some truly great songs on Mellow Gold, but there’s also a whole lot of knowingly unlistenable junkard noise. And that’s what’s fascinating about it. Because even if Mellow Gold is only a half-great album, it’s more fun to think about than any other Beck album. It’s fun to imagine the face of the first DGC executive to listen to “Mutherfuker,” or the boardroom conversations that went into picking a second single. It’s fun to imagine Beck recording the “this is the album, right here” intro to “Pay No Mind (Snoozer),” giggling at his own audacity. It’s fun to try coming up with a present-day equivalent: Lorde’s Pure Heroine, say, if it had just been “Royals,” a couple of songs that sounded a bit like “Royals,” and 10 tracks of Pharmakon-style noise.

I’m overstating things here, of course. Mellow Gold has plenty of great songs; even in the ’90s, an album couldn’t go platinum on the strength of one song alone. And for the most part, the great songs on Mellow Gold are the ones that sound something like “Loser.” For the life of me, I’ll never understand why “Beercan,” with its propulsive Madchester guitar strums and rubbery bassline and singalong hook, wasn’t huge. “Fuckin With My Head” and “Soul Suckin Jerk” have a lot of that same forward momentum, too. At the time, the legend of Beck was that all these weird pop-music juxtapositions just flowed out of him. He said that he came up with the instantly iconic “Loser” hook because he was trying to rap like Chuck D on the slack-jawed free-associative verses and failing miserably. But I think there was more agency to it than that, and I think those songs had more to do with what was happening in music at the time than Beck was letting on. In putting together those strings of meaningless words on “Loser,” Beck demonstrated a crazy-sophisticated command of the way words can sound, the pleasure that those sound-combinations can bring. For my generation, “dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose” was a sort of “cellar door” — a phrase that, regardless of meaning or context, had its own beauty. “Loser” is made up entirely of phrases like that, and the songs that sound like it are, too. And I can’t help but think Beck picked up tricks like that, as well as simple song-construction ideas, from the Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys. The way the guitar kicks in halfway through “Soul Suckin Jerk” is a total Beasties move, for instance, and the “Walk On Gilded Splinters” sample on “Loser” probably drove Mario Caldato nuts with envy. The breakbeats on those songs were straight-up early-’90s, too — a slightly rougher version of the drum patterns you’d hear on house-pop hits or Soup Dragons college-radio nuggets or George Michael singles.

The more perverse moments of the album have their own basic pleasures, too. I know people who still swear by “Pay No Mind,” and that song, despite all its silliness about a “giant dildo crushing the sun” and its “I sleep in slime / I just got signed” baby-Cobain provocations, has a very basic beauty. On Mutations and Sea Change and Morning Phase, Beck would isolate and perfect that beauty, turning it into something pristine and resonant, but the bones of it were there from the beginning. Similarly, on “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat),” Beck takes a break from the word-salad lyric-writing approach, showing some commendable verbal economy in presenting a weirdly empathetic vision of his white-trash human-mess acquaintances: “Acid casualty with the repossessed car / Vietnam vet playing air guitar.” (I used to try to replicate Beck’s slowed-down beyond-deep baritone in the song by singing into the bottom of a bongo drum. I badly needed a girlfriend.)

Still, the album is full of touches and ideas that seem knowingly distancing, designed to keep audiences at arm’s length, from the raspy distortion on the vocals to the near-atonal vocal melodies on some songs to the dueling kazoo and jaw harp solos on “Steal My Body Home.” The major-label system would, of course, release weirder albums than Mellow Gold during the great ’90s post-Nirvana gold rush; Mellow Gold is probably closer to Debbie Gibson than it is to the Boredoms’ Pop Tatari. But none of the experimental blurts that snuck through came from actual proven hitmakers, and none of them came from people who would go on to become major-label stalwarts, which is what Beck is now. Compared to the rest of his big-label output, Mellow Gold is a total damaged aberration. This wasn’t a case where Beck’s ideas were so forward-looking that it took audiences years to catch up. The album is still a relatively rough listen now, and it’s obviously intended to be one. The Beck who made Mellow Gold obviously had no real interest in changing the mainstream from within or even in finding a cult audience. Instead, it’s a thrown gauntlet of an album: “Oh, so you like ‘Loser,’ huh? Well, I’m going to spend the two minutes of ‘Mutherfuker’ screaming at you like a deranged goblin; we’ll see how much you like me then.”

A little more than a year after Mellow Gold came out, I saw Beck hold down an early-afternoon slot on the Lollapalooza ’95 mainstage, playing in between the Jesus Lizard and Elastica. I don’t remember much about his set — just that he danced like a spazz and that he carried himself like way less of a star than David Yow or Justine Frischmann, even though he would of course turn out to be a way bigger deal than either. In a way, it’s impressive that Beck was even booked on the tour that long after “Loser” had faded from heavy rotation. Lollapalooza wasn’t exactly a welcome environment for one-hit wonders, and Beck’s spot on the bill probably had as much to do with the two cred-bolstering indie albums that he also put out in 1994 as it did with “Loser.” And in retrospect, I’m not even sure he played “Loser” that day. This was, after all, a time when it was cool for bands to leave their biggest song out of their set lists. (Pavement, playing later that day, pissed me off to no end by opting not to play “Cut Your Hair.”) The next time I saw Beck live was two years later, touring behind Odelay and headlining a massive radio-station festival inside a football stadium. He’d reinvented himself completely by then — not sanding off his rough edges, exactly, but transforming his ideas and influences and sensibilities into a massively entertaining crowd-pleasing pseudo-James Brown routine. The same thing happened on record; Odelay took all the ideas of Mellow Gold and made them cut deeper and spread wider. Mellow Gold, then, is maybe better understood as the first chapter in a book than it is as a story unto itself.

It’s tricky to figure out the legacy of Mellow Gold, which turns 20 tomorrow, or even the legacy of an artist as mercurial as Beck. There was one moment where he was certainly an influential figure: The mid-to-late ’90s, when hit-hungry veterans like the Butthole Surfers and nobodies like the Primitive Radio Gods hit alt-rock-radio paydirt by clumsily aping Beck’s whole absurdist-half-rapping/dusty-breakbeats style. The fake-Beck hits of that era are obviously cynical and shallow, but some of them are also great — I will rep for “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand” until death — and I guess we have Beck to thank, in part, for those. (Even “MMMBop” might be a post-Beck single, which means Beck had something to do with unwittingly ushering in the boy-band era, which is weird.) Beyond that, though, it’s hard to find traces of Beck in the music that’s come after. Maybe Mutations helped make the major-label waters a little warmer for an Elliott Smith. Maybe rock critics like me had an easier time embracing Timbaland because Midnite Vultures helped make R&B seem nerd-acceptable. Maybe Animal Collective picked up a few tricks for their distant-polyglot live show. But maybe it’s better to think of Beck as a singular figure who’s spent the past two decades dancing gracefully across the musical landscape. And if Mellow Gold was the moment that dance began, maybe that’s legacy enough.