Mellow Gold, released 20 years ago this week, is technically Beck's third record, but given the odd releases of his first two records - Golden Feelings was cassette only until a limited CD re-release in 1999, whilst Stereopathetic Soulmanure was released just a week before Geffen put out Mellow Gold - it is often seen as his canonical debut.

The album was, according to the liner notes, recorded at the houses of Karl Stephenson and Rob Schnapf, predominantly utilising a four-track. Mellow Gold is, to put it bluntly, a lo-fi record. That's about the only overarching classification the album can be given.

The scatter-gun range of Mellow Gold's tracks is one aspect that makes the album exciting. Certainly on that first listen it's easy to find your entire sense of being displaced, particularly once 'Loser' ends and we begin to enter unknown territory. I'll come back to 'Loser' later - it certainly casts an ominous shadow over the record given its status as a bona-fide hit and an undeniable part of Beck's persona - but first it is useful to focus our attention on those tracks that might feel a little bit sidelined.

Pay No Mind (Snoozer)

That sucking noise you hear at the beginning? That's this track's equivalent of a sharp intake of breath. It's going to need all the energy and bluster it can muster if it wants to make an impression. 'Pay No Mind' had the unenviable task of following 'Loser' not once, but twice. Not only is it the second track on Mellow Gold, it was also the second single issued from it. So you'll excuse it a moment to prepare itself. It doesn't help that a creepy child-like voice, after it's dismissed with the formalities of introducing the track as "song two on the album", implores you to "burn the album". Go on man, you've already heard the hit single and paid your money. Haven't you got better things to do? I'll save you the trouble, man. Destroy this record and go do something else. There's nothing else of any real value beyond this point.

Aside from the unconventional introduction, 'Pay No Mind' is a relatively traditional folk song. Beck strums at an acoustic guitar in a way that can be described as lackadaisical at best, and there's a hint of harmonica scattered throughout. The vocals, less obtuse than the song that went before, tend towards the surrealistic. "Tonight, the city is full of morgues", Beck sings glumly. Wherever this place is (most likely New York or LA as both were home to Beck in the years leading up to this record) we get a very clear impression of the urban decay spreading like the rank slime from an overflowing toilet. But Beck's been holding out on the true horror, the image that'll strike fear into your mind. "There's shopping malls coming out of the walls," he announces, creating the image of brownstone buildings expanding, rupturing, with bricolage and debris falling from the sky as huge, wide structures of gleaming glass and steel, and low, low prices clear a space to settle and consume.

'Pay No Mind' wears its anti-corporation, anti-consumerism badge proudly. You could argue, that it's a little hypocritical coming from an artist signed to a major record label - particularly when the second verse contains the line "give the finger to the rock 'n' roll singer" - but it is perfectly possible to have such a political stance whilst taking money from big business. Beck wasn't the first and he most certainly won't be the last artist to do so.

It's also worth remembering that this is one of the oldest songs on the album. So perhaps that sucking noise was a deep sigh of relief. Finally, the song is out there; oh no here comes the crushing doubt! Quick, "burn the album!"

The song ends with Beck considering that perhaps commerce isn't so bad. After all, he needs a change, he's sick of playing the same old venues, earning next to nothing for his effort and having to prop himself up with extra jobs on the side. "Slacker my ass," Beck once remarked, "I never had any slack. I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. That slacker stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything." It's said that he even had his hesitations about joining Geffen for his first album. In many ways 'Pay No Mind' offers our first glimpse at the real person behind the 'Loser' persona.

Fuckin' With My Head (Moutain Dew Rock)

An acoustic guitar gives way to a heavily affected roots rock rhythm and a lead full of warbled notes that sound like the guitar has been recorded through a can - underwater. Another harmonica, louder and a little distorted this time, is casually scattered through the chorus. The percussion meanwhile is quiet, but sounds as though it was beat out on whatever they could find at hand, maybe even that tin can used to record the lead guitar.

There's an old-timey blues feel to this. The harmonica and guitars give the song a little punch under Beck's double-tracked vocals - which might be an attempt to pitch at the higher notes sometimes associated with old Robert Johnson and Leadbelly records. In keeping with the clichéd blues tone, the lyrics seem to focus on the story of a travelling bum. Or at least someone whose been living at the margins so long, their first reaction upon seeing their reflection is to think there is "a scarecrow in my jeans".

Lyrically, it's interesting enough, but it doesn't really offer anything that countless other blues and country tracks haven't provided before - unless you consider the song to actually be taking a more critical opinion of the homeless. "I ain't got no inclination / take away my sweet sensation / sleepin' in an old toolshed / scumbag cryin' on his pillow". Given that Beck was quick to refute his 'slacker' credentials, it seems unlikely that this track is autobiographical, or even an attempt to establish some sort of traveller mythos. It's possible that he's mocking a particular view of the homeless, one that casts them in an unsympathetic light.

Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997

"One more time." 'Whiskeyclone' is a place of mind-numbing boredom. Our narrator was born in a hotel and will live there forever. Could this be the same hotel that once captured The Eagles? We're told the ocean is nearby, so perhaps this nightmarish lodging is in California.

This dish washing hotel employee also appears to be coming apart at the seams. Groaning voices rebound around us as he attempts to show us his visions. There's a girl talking to the squirrels, a sports car, is that gunpowder on his sleeve? Was he trying to kill that rattlesnake he swears he saw slithering on the ceiling, or was he pointing the gun at himself?

"One more time." Better slink out of this room before he starts up again, dude was bringing us down with all that talk of being lonesome when he's gone. That groaning is also beginning to get a little haunting; the sound of a hundred disembodied voices all of one singular idea. Could this life of servitude actually be sapping the creativity and individualism of these poor souls? Better to get out of here before it's too late.

Soul Suckin' Jerk

There's a fairly funky bass riff that acts as the centrepiece to 'Soul Suckin' Jerk'. If the first four tracks have been apeing fairly traditional folk and blues styles, then this is a radical departure. The song veers far closer to hip-hop than anything else on the album. Lyrically, 'Loser' does reference rap, but its structure is far more heavily influenced by the blues and 60s pop.

Like much of Mellow Gold, the song quickly descends into madness; we can infer that this, as with 'Whiskeyclone', is a result of the narrator's own decreasing sanity as he attempts to navigate a post-employment life. Thematically it offers an alternative story to that of its predecessor as 'Soul Suckin' Jerk's narrator takes the definitive action to quit his job after symbolically burning his puke green uniform in a vat of chicken fat. The result, however, is an increasingly bleak tale as the narrator realises that without the routine of his McJob, he is ill-equiped to survive and at every turn is faced with antagonists who seek to control him. Here the nightmare visions are of bird-cages, prisons and butterfly nets.

Before signing to Geffen, Beck was known to work a number of supposedly dead-end jobs, playing cafes at night to hone his craft. We know that he had a job blowing leaves at one point (which he later references on 'Beercan') and it's certainly likely that whilst he might not have held down a fast food job, some of his peers may have, such was the ubiquity of the McJob amongst impoverished urbanites in the 90s. It could be read then that 'Soul Suckin' Jerk' and 'Whiskeyclone' form a double bill that honour those that never managed to make it big. In both tracks we see glimpses at the creative spirit of the narrators. 'Soul Suckin' Jerk's narrator makes a number of comparisons to being a creature of flight that the man is trying to capture.

'Soul Suckin Jerk' also hints at the anger that becomes a more common feature on the latter half of Mellow Gold. The narrator's aggression comes to the fore in the second verse as Beck's distorted yell replaces the more meandering rap of the first half of the song. Along with the repeated cry of the song's title, a stylistic wail that would be recreated two years later on 'Devil's Haircut', it's strange that this song didn't become a counter-culture anthem like 'Loser' - instead it seems to have become something of a hidden gem. Maybe there was a fear that after 'Loser' any potentially subversive counter-culture song would become just another marketing tool for the soul suckin' jerks of the world.

Truckdrivin' Neighbours Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)

There's some commotion coming from the room next door: glass is smashed and two grown men yell at each other. Every goddamned night this happens. You'd call the cops, but they never want to get involved in stuff like this. Turn up the volume on the tube and hope to drown them out. Otherwise, grab a pillow and try to muffle the sound so that you might get some sleep. You're back at Burger World at 8am tomorrow.

Beck sounds like he hasn't slept in weeks on this. His voice growls as he hurls insult after insult at his nameless neighbours. Interestingly his opening line offers a glimpse at a troubled past for the "shit kicking, speed taking, truck driving neighbours downstairs" as he describes them as an "acid casualty with a repossessed car / Vietnam vet playing air guitar". This makes 'Tuckdrivin' Neighbours' seem a lot more cynical and cruel than was perhaps intended.

Beck was raised in LA, just off of Hollywood boulevard, his father was a composer and his mother was a visual artist who worked with Warhol. It's been suggested that Beck wasn't raised in a particularly affluent neighbourhood, but it certainly seems that he was never raised in poverty. Meanwhile the fictitious neighbours he sings of are certainly victims of government decisions beyond their control that forced them into an inescapable spiral of violence, drug dependency and likely, depression. The war on drugs sought to victimise the vulnerable who had fallen into addiction, the war in Vietnam created a strong negativity towards US troops for participating in a costly and unnecessary war.

Of course, that is not to excuse their behaviour, but provides a context and if anything reveals perhaps the frustration felt by Beck as he plucks away at his guitar sneering at the white trash living next door.

Beck interviewed by Thurston Moore in 1994

Sweet Sunshine

We're past the half-way point and things are getting increasingly dark. This is turning out to be one bad trip and it's likely many people will begin to wonder why they're still here at this point. 'Sweet Sunshine' is practically demonic; perhaps this was the trip that destroyed the acid casualty of 'Truckdrivin' Neighbours'.

Beck's vocals are heavily distorted, as though being delivered through a megaphone, whilst the bass growls like some hellish creature let loose upon the earth. Beck certainly seems to be obsessed with some horrific vision - yet also seems intent on revisiting this nightmare again and again. That doesn't seem to be the best idea, however, as it's possibly driving him to acts of destruction. When it's not self destruction, he's killing his relations and destroying the city by swinging through it on a wrecking ball - perhaps in an attempt to kill the hoards of malls bursting through the walls.

Beercan

As an antidote here is 'Beercan'. Perhaps the most upbeat track on the album, and also the closest in sound to follow-up record Odelay, it seems to capture the joy of youth, despite the crushing prospect of eking out a career, dealing with bills and the knowledge that soon your best years will be behind you. That doesn't matter on 'Beercan', because right now we're young, wild and free.

This attitude is perhaps best exemplified in the strange sample that appears in the latter third of the track. A child's voice announces, "I'm sad and unhappy," but is quickly manipulated out of the mix before it can explain why. Take your negativity elsewhere kid, now grab me another beer out of that sack.

Everything about 'Beercan' is fun. That funky bass, the music box bridge, the summery chord progression, even the odd high-pitched yelps of "oh my goodness". The lyrics reflect this with a sneaky middle-finger aimed at the squares and the man. "I've got a drug and I got the bug / and I got something better than love" Wasn't it Don Draper who said that love was something 60s ad men created to sell nylon panty-hose?

If you stuck around past 'Sweet Sunshine' then 'Beercan' hopefully makes enduring that track seem worthwhile - as it introduces a required lightness to the record. Of course, much of the album has had levity to it. A 90s irony in the almost dada-esque lyrics and the low-fi production, as well as a casual tongue in cheek 'sticking it to the man' attitude - despite what you may think of Beck's intentions and origins.

Steal My Body Home

If 'Beercan' is the album's high, then 'Steal My Body Home' is the hard come down. Beck's vocals are more lackadaisical and melancholic here than on any other track on this album - maybe more so than on any other track of his, past or present. He almost sounds suicidal as he begs to be put "in a hole in the ground" or dealing with his problems by "drinking gasoline and wine". I shudder to think why he might have caught a chill off the stove.

Underneath this is a hypnotic sitar, the song's spiritual link back to 'Loser'. However, the negativity here isn't in any way ironic or self-deprecating. This is the sound of the titular 'Loser' finally believing the accusations levelled at him and sinking into an overwhelming depression. And yet that sitar mesmerises, it draws your attention and almost induces a trance-like state. It's contemplative and otherworldly. It cycles round Beck's dullened vocal like a spirit calling out from the void, heaven, limbo, or the endless nothing - whatever you might believe.

And then there is a strange release. The sitar gives away, Beck falls silent and a twangy guitar and makeshift percussion clatter into focus. The coda to 'Steal My Body Home' suggests a life after death with music being a way of freeing yourself from the accusations and expectations of yourself and others. It's possibly one of the most affecting songs on the record and would have made for a perfect track to end on. Unfortunately that wasn't to be.

Nitemare Hippy Girl

Beck returns to mocking on this simplistic folk track. This time he's aiming at the titular hippy girl, a supposed walking cliche who has very little to say or offer. "She's a magical sparkling tease" Beck whines as he lists her characteristics, and becomes increasingly negative.

Of all the tracks on Mellow Gold, this is by far the weakest of the bunch. An almost forgettable three minutes of strummed guitars, with the lyrics veering towards uncomfortable misogyny. There's a suggestion that really all of this is just posturing on behalf of the nitemare hippy girl; such are the ridiculous attempts to seem real. "She's got Tofu the size of Texas," laughs Beck, "she's playing footsie in another dimension" he sneers. You can almost imagine the dumb hollering from hipper-than-thou crowds as they think of those faux hippy girls, posturing in order to suck men into their apartments.

Mutherfuker

The penultimate track on Mellow Gold is also its shortest - a blistering industrial rock track, with deep scuzzy bass and a growling, antagonistic performance from Beck. He opens the song with a rallying cry, the instruments charge into action and it thunders past leaving you disorientated and maybe a little shell-shocked.

Lyrically the track is rather simplistic, and isn't really saying anything that punk, new wave and other rock acts haven't said before. The message is "hey man, you don't know about me and my generation, so quit your judging" (funny given that Beck himself was just judging all those nitemare hippy girls). Beck's threats of violence don't seem worth taking too seriously though, and given his scrawny, long haired 90s look, it makes the whole thing a bit farcical, but that's to its strength.

Beck would return to a heavy rock sound on tracks like 'E-Pro' and 'Devil's Haircut', but nothing would reach the down and dirty riff of 'Mutherfuker'. Admittedly, amongst the album's other cuts, which tend towards mellow, contemplative backing, the noise and braggadocio of 'Mutherfuker' makes it stand out like a sore thumb. This is part of what makes Mellow Gold an exciting record though, even after 20 years. It might be constructed from skeletons and scattered ideas, but sometimes those ideas manifest themselves as something hugely enjoyable, or even meaningful.

Blackhole

You can barely hear Beck on the final track 'Blackhole'. His voice is almost swallowed up with reverb, echoing guitars and violin. Much like 'Steal My Body Home' it is as though his voice is being transmitted from somewhere else, except this time it's gotten lost along the way and all that's left is this cryptic sonic message that may as well be garbled static.

After two short verses Beck's voice disappears and the acoustic guitar drives on as the violin gives in to more intricate passages and a familiar sitar gently buzzes in the background. Slowly everything fades away and after a few brief seconds of silence, a hidden track - remember those? - created from electronic noise and tape effects rebounds around you. It's almost like the album itself is rewinding, erasing its own existence in the process. 'Blackhole' swallows everything up and after a few short chaotic moments silence arrives once more.

Is this it? The end?

The first time I ever heard Mellow Gold I reached the end almost exhausted. I tried to keep up with Beck as he took me on a sonic journey from a radio hit, through folk, blues, hip-hop, noise and into the void. I didn't know what to make of what I heard. Some of it I fell in love with instantly, some took a little more time, and to this day there remains one or two tracks that have me reaching for skip. Part of the problem was 'Loser'. As a single it promised something that the album didn't - maybe couldn't - deliver. Yet still I find myself searching for meaning that perhaps was never there to begin with. I hit play again and hear that slide guitar just one more time.

Loser

'Loser' remains to this day a complicated track for Beck's career. A breakout hit that came to define him for years after the fact - it is in that respect similar to Radiohead's 'Creep'. Though there's no suggestion that Beck hated his song, there were definitely attempts made to distance himself from the image the media created based on an (often incorrect) interpretation of the lyrics. These attempts took the form of denying any 'slacker' characteristics, the eschewing of folk and blues styles on follow-up Odelay, and even going as far as to devalue Mellow Gold as a serious record.

It is not too much of a leap to see 'Loser' as the track that almost destroyed Mellow Gold. Like the shopping malls of 'Pay No Mind' it burst out of the confines of the record, scattering the other tracks like fragments of time, place, memory, people. The loser was accepted by society and in doing so snubbed those who grew up around him. The tracks of Mellow Gold are all oddities, misshapen and unloved and now, twenty years on, a distant memory. That inventive spirit that we first saw glimpses of in 'Loser's witty lyrics, the manic aggression of 'Mutherfuker' and surrealism of 'Soul Suckin' Jerk', seems to have been twisted into mere novelty for Beck today. When he's not releasing sheet music, so others can record his music for him, he's revisiting past affairs with a far more pedestrian sound. Just another in a long line of rock 'n' roll singers dancing upon your paycheck.

I love Mellow Gold. I will probably feel that way for a long time, if not forever. It's deeply flawed, but that, for me, adds to its appeal. It was never meant to be perfect and I've gradually come to terms with that. Sometimes I expect too much of it (and of music in general) but it never fails to remind me that sometimes things don't have to be so explicit, so direct and intentional. You can be vague, just wandering through life and trying to find out who you are. There's a journey from being a 'Loser' and heading towards that all consuming 'Blackhole', just try to enjoy yourself along the way.