Here's a puzzler: If Geffen releases a Beck album but does little to promote it, is it still a Beck album? Afraid that this departure from the Dust Brothers-produced collage sound of the best-selling Odelay might confuse and disappoint fans of Beck's most immediate previous work, the label has quietly released Mutations, treating it as a Beck albumit's got his name on the coverbut not a "Beck" album. It's a testament to the inherent weirdness of conservative '90s marketing that an artist who found breakthrough success by doing something radically different would be treated with distrust when trying to follow that breakthrough with something that doesn't match the sound of what he did before. It's as if creativity were a mountaintop that, once scaled, prevents any further ascent. A Beck album, and an excellent one at that, Mutations departs considerably from the Odelay formula. It draws from just as many far-reaching influences, just without the benefit of samples and elaborate studio construction, resembling a more carefully crafted version of the 1994 miscellany collection Stereopathic Soulmanure. Suggesting a set of fleshed-out folk songs, Beck's acoustic guitar and unmistakable dream-logic lyrics ("Egos drone and pose alone / like black balloons, all banged and blown") provide the backbone of nearly every track. While that would make for a fine album on its own, it's the next step that makes Mutations even better. The country twang of "Canceled Check" and "Sing It Again," the '60s studio experimentation of "We Live Again" and "Cold Brain," the Braziliana of "Tropicalia," the droning sitar and tambura of "Nobody's Fault But My Own," and the blues (obviously) of "Bottle Of Blues" all help establish Beck as a musician nearly unparalleled in flexibility. But rather than simply paying tribute, Beck turns each song into something unmistakably his own, creating consistency from disparate material. He's either the ideal end-of-the-millennium artist, or the first important rock star of the next.