During the past decade, Beck has recorded seven albums, each diverging in style, character and resonance. Mellow Gold, released in 1994 after Geffen won a bidding war for the man behind the surprise underground hit "Loser," displayed, in a singular package, the genre-bending sensibilities that have marked his career. On such tracks as "Beercan" he's the boho b-boy rapping over guitar loops crossed with breakbeats and hinting at what was to come with Odelay (1996). Two songs later, however, on "Nitemare Hippy Girl," the guy who came of age playing folk on street corners reveals himself in style, if not substance.
That's been the dilemma with Beck from the start. His talent and fearlessness have never been in doubt. Odelay, his hit collaboration with the Dust Brothers, was infused with the same kaleidoscopic spirit as the Beastie Boys' legendary Paul's Boutique. And with Mutations (1998), one of his "quiet" (and under-appreciated) records, he channeled Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles on "Lazy Flies" and Dylan with "Cancelled Check." He's played Mick on "Letterman" and he even, ambitiously, tried on Prince with the regrettable Midnite Vultures (1999). Beck's chameleonic powers and encyclopedic musical knowledge have, at one time or another, been applied to his continuously evolving palette.
There have been moments here and there "Asshole" on the indie release One Foot in the Grave (1994), for instance where he's sounded bare and true. But mostly there's been a "joke's-on-you" quality to his music. Like he's the smart-ass in the back of the classroom whose intellect and quick wit you begrudgingly respect, but who, at the same time, you'd never trust. Beck's insistence on hiding behind his personas and playing it distant and silly has undermined his fan base and been a career-long handicap.
On his new album, Sea Change, Beck has signaled a desire to communicate differently. And in doing so, he's shuffled his deck, yanked the jokers and dealt a hand full of aces. It is his finest work yet. Beck's newfound openness was apparently inspired, in a flurry of writing, by a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. With his back against the wall and nothing to prove, Beck gets serious. And from his first gentle strum, doors are willed open where you'd expect them to slam shut.
While varying in tone, from spare guitars to lush strings, Sea Change is never suffocating. Nigel Godrich, the man behind Radiohead's last three albums as well as Beck's Mutations, has fashioned a sound that is, at once, acoustic and airy, yet also multi-dimensional, provocative and beautiful. Amongst the album's 12 tracks, there isn't a false note sounded.
Upon first listen, and considering Beck's past work, the one thing that seemed to be missing was his patented punchline. Fortunately there isn't one. Lost love is no joke. Even to Beck, whose most famous lyric until now was "I'm a loser baby/ So why don't you kill me." At times, on Sea Change, it sounds like Beck wanted to die, but instead reached for his notepad to write another song. His anguish pays off, and Beck delivers the album of the year. Sea Change not only signals a pinnacle in his career but may just be remembered, in an environment fueled by accelerating cycles of disposable culture, as one of this young decade's best records.
Beck sings on the stark, lovely opener, "The Golden Age," that "These days I barely get by/ I don't even try." But he also expresses a desire to drive all night, to "let the window down," and "let the weight of the world drift away..." It's this contrast in sentiment, the lacing of past struggles with finding some peace of mind and, ultimately, some peace, that allows Sea Change, an album of a dozen sad songs, to also strike the chord of redemption.
"Paper Tiger," a note-by-note reinterpretation of Serge Gainsbourg's "Melody" (from his seminal Histoire de Melody Nelson), provides a hint as to what era was on Beck's mind when composing Sea Change. "Round the Bend," with Beck's whispered vocals hovering above a delicate arrangement of eerie, lonely strings, would play perfectly alongside Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left. And "Already Dead," its acoustic guitar shimmering in the forefront, evokes Neil Young, circa Harvest.
The music Beck references on Sea Change songs and albums produced in a fertile period from the late '60s to early '70s still sound spry themselves. And unlike the shroud of self-consciousness that marred Midnite Vultures, Beck wears these influences well. By going back to his country-folk roots, Beck also replaces the falsetto he used on his last album with a confident tenor. As he's opened himself up with his writing, his voice and delivery have followed. At his most vulnerable, he sounds more assured than ever.
In sequencing the album the way they have, Beck and Godrich begin with the intimate ("The Golden Age," "Paper Tiger") and end ("Sunday Sun" and "Little One") with the epic. These two songs, with their anthemic qualities, not only mark a stylistic departure for Beck, but in the writing, shed some hope for his conflicted protagonist. "Looking for a satellite/ In the rays of heaven again," he sings on "Sunday Sun," building to its crescendo. "There's no other ending/ Sunday sun/ Yesterdays are ending/...Yesterdays are mending."
There's a daring quality to Nigel Godrich's production. What could have been a complete folk implosion has instead resulted in a work marked by richness and clarity (whether in voice or instrumentation) and, at certain points, a big sound that's liberated and exhilarating.
Bruce Springsteen's The Rising has been marketed and embraced by opportunistic media struggling to find one clear voice to sum up, in song, the country's feelings about Sept. 11 and its reverberating aftermath. It can be argued that, with this release, and in his own coded way, Beck is also evoking losses greater than his own. On the artwork accompanying the CD, there are several painted panels of linear abstract color. One, however, portrays an orange sunset and a branch rising like black lightening in reverse from the bottom of the frame. It reaches toward a sky made up of wispy red clouds and a block of gray penetrated with glowing stars. The shape in the sky is the American flag, and this branch aligns as its flagpole. Its jagged form can also be interpreted to represent the now-permanently-imbedded broadcast visuals of the fallen towers from Ground Zero. One thing is certain; it's an image that's there for a reason.
As an artist unwilling to repeat himself, Beck fidgets. He says he already has another album's worth of material recorded with Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Dr. Octagon, Gorillaz), which will likely swing his pendulum in a different direction. And as he prepares to tour with the Flaming Lips as his backing band intending, with their help, to reinvent his old work Beck may, in six weeks or six months, separate himself from the songs on Sea Change. Still, he was brave enough to release it. And for a guy who whether banging out Delta blues or breakdancing in disguise is always in control, that says a lot.
If he chooses to leave this material behind, no matter. Sea Change is here. And as it continues to be sounded out in the subconscious, in dreams, on the road or on the stereo, it's not going away.