Sea Change (Geffen)
By: Alex Steininger
I have a love/hate relationship with Beck's music. On one side, I love the fact that he is a musical genius, a mastermind of all things music, whether it is 60's-soul induced hip-hop, whispery folk, dance music, punk, pop, or rock 'n' roll. He always seems to bite off more than he can chew and somehow come out on top.
On the flip side of that, I have always hated his schizophrenic, retro-to-contemporary approach, as he spans several decades of music, and never looks back. His albums, though great by any standard, never seem to have the cohesiveness that I need in a record.
For a collection of songs, where you jump, skip, and repeat tracks, few can measure up to Beck. Played all the way through, though, Beck takes you on too much of a roller coaster ride.
And then something like 1998's Mutations comes along. Fresh off the road touring in support of Odelay, Beck and his touring back put to tape twelve songs in whirlwind fashion, recording them all in under two weeks.
The outcome was, surprising, an unlabored, natural, off-the-cuff record that found Beck at his best, showcasing his 60's pop sensibilities.
Then came the follow-up, 1999's Midnite Vultures, yet another Beck record that was all over the map. Critically acclaim followed, of course, and fans ate it up. While it was another notch on the belt for Beck, it left me longing for something more cohesive, something less funky, less out there, and more stripped down and grounded.
Beck's latest, Sea Change, answers my cries. A dark, gloomy pop-folk record of haunting magnitude, Sea Change is Beck at his best, though I'm sure many will be quick to disagree. Regardless, this is the record I knew Beck had in him; this is the record I've been waiting for him to make.
It's apparent from the first listen of Sea Change that Beck hasn't had the best three years. Either that or he wants us to think he's all doom and gloom before shocking us with a happy-go-lucky follow-up. The latter, however, is highly unlikely, as the emotional depth and soul-searching found on Sea Change can not be fabricated.
When Beck sings "These days I barely get by / I don't even try" in the album opener, "The Golden Age", he matter-of-factly summarizes the depressed state of the entire record. His reserved, detached moan sounding as if he wants to give up, though knows he must go on, while he struggles to find the nerve to sing about his feelings without reliving them.
A Wurlitzer and a synth give "The Golden Age" a subtle space texture, while Beck's acoustic guitar is gently strummed with little effort, the easy nature of the rhythm section keeping the song fluid.
With the simplistic, straightforward lyricism of "Guess I'm Doing Fine", Beck turns the most basic of phrases into poetry. 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 sings, mostly to himself.
He sounds anything but convincing though, his depressed drawl a dead giveaway as he struggles to win over the emotions that control him, the lies consuming him, providing the air he breathes.
"Lonesome Tears", one of three tracks Beck's father, David Campbell performs strings on, is a dark, lush legacy Beck will leave behind, the kind of song that will be covered many times over. With sorrowful string arrangements and a desolate voice spun into a dim, pessimistic number, the song screams for comfort, something the listener will happy oblige.
The rest of the album continues down the same path, tales of love and loss, regret, and doubt. Beck's dusky acoustic guitar and beat up voice, the dark backdrops that sweep through the album, and an anti-folk gone reclusive attitude that feeds on a few cherished pop records... that is what seems to keep Beck going. And it works. I'll give it an A+.
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