Beck: Sea Change (Geffen)

Sea Change is seriously sad, reflective, and quiet.

“Well since my baby left me/I’ve found a new place to dwell.” So begins one of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits, “Heartbreak Hotel.” This may seem like an odd way to start a review of Beck’s latest album, Sea Change—except that Beck’s baby indeed left him, and he’s found a new tale to tale, both thematically and stylistically. Beck Hanson isn’t known particularly for introspection or melancholy, although his 1998 album Mutations had some material in that vein. But it also had a few spry, tropicalia-flavored numbers. Beck’s other work, such as Odelay and Midnite Vultures, was mostly white-boy funk and snappy stoner rock. Sea Change, on the other hand, is seriously sad, reflective, and quiet. It captures Beck in the throes of pain and resignation following the breakup of a long-term romance. Much of it may sound musically dreary upon casual listen, and it certainly doesn’t rock much. But it’s actually quite a compelling, stirring work when you really pay attention. And it’s one of those albums that, if you’re experiencing similar emotions, will serve as a sort of musical tonic.    

In the rootsy weeper “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” Beck sings, “I just wade the tides that turned/Till I learn to leave the past behind/It’s only lies that I’m living/It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine.” He’s not kidding anybody, of course, and he knows it, but it’s the way we try to simplify things and self-mock a bit when our heart gets broken. The music is sparse, and the low-mixed electric guitar and synth fill in the emotional blanks. Several songs have sweet, elegant orchestrations that add immensely to the listening experience, “Lonesome Tears” and the delicate, emotive “It’s All In Your Mind” among them. The latter has a stark simplicity that is truly poignant, and Beck’s vocals have never been so clear and heartfelt.

An influence that must be mentioned here is that of Nick Drake, the tormented genius of early ’70s English folk-rock. Drake had an uncanny ability to burrow straight into the soul of the listener, and an incredible orchestrator, Robert Kirby, who helped him get there on classic tunes like “River Man.” Beck, on a song called “Round the Bend,” channels Drake better than anyone I’ve heard in ages; his vocals are hushed, the orchestration utterly haunting. It’s a major surprise in every way, although, when you think about it, the guy who once sang “I’m a loser baby/So why don’t you kill me?” may have found himself identifying with Drake (who was a known depressive) in ways he couldn’t have foreseen during this album. At any rate, there are other tunes here that reward patience and do more than just wallow in romantic despair: “Paper Tiger” is dark but bluesy, with a George Martin-like string arrangement; “End of the Day” is subtle and resonant; “Sunday Sun” actually has rhythm and a little pep to it, and the unconventional piano part adds a nice texture, as do the background harmonies.

Credit for adding texture and effective undercurrents to the album must be shared by producer Nigel Godrich, who has been manning the boards for Radiohead and Travis, among others, and establishing himself as a sympathetic whiz in the studio. But, ultimately, this is Beck’s self-therapy, a downbeat and yet not hopeless album that confronts the unexpected sorrow of being set free by a romantic partner. It shows Beck’s strength as an artist and a human being that he could make such an album with as much focus and discipline as his more commercial works. Sea Change represents exactly that in Beck’s career, even though most of his fans will be clamoring for something more upbeat next time.

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