Beck is kind of a bummer these days. He used to be hobo boho visionary, with crisco-disco dance moves, an invention up each sleeve, and a seemingly bottomless supply of casual genius. Now he's a Scientologist who's apparently content to endlessly sample himself while trying to up his clear rating or whatever.
But it wasn't always so. The '90s saw Beck working at a feverish pace to produce some of the decade's best albums. From 1994's psych-blues Mellow Gold, through the epochal cut-n-paste mindfuck of Odelay, the bossanova-flavored meltdown of Mutations, and the Prince-tastic R&B pisstake/homage of 1999's Midnite Vultures, Mr. Hansen was on a serious goodtime roll, flaunting his considerable creative powers in a variety of directions and hitting anything he aimed at. And then came the 21st century, and Beck decided to bring it down a little bit.
2002's Sea Change is the last great Beck album, and so unlike its predecessors that its sound came as a real shock upon first listen. Absent are the samples and beats that were a signature of Beck's previous efforts. Gone are the po-mo allusions and smirking self-references. Instead, we get Beck as emotionally naked balladeer, a sad-eyed poet with a guitar, a string section, and a trunk-full of heartrending melodies. It's a breathtaking LP, and as raw a display of loss and regret as one could reasonably expect from the guy who brought us "Sexx Laws."
Sea Change was produced by fin-de-siecle engineer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich (the dude behind OK Computer and -- perhaps less significantly -- Pavement's last LP, Terror Twilight), and it sounds great. It's a rich, resonant album, with thick strings wrapping snugly around sparkling acoustic guitars, twinkly keys, and slightly echoey vocals. Cosmic pedal steel runs and occasional electronic flourishes are peppered throughout this collection of mostly down- and mid-tempo tracks, and Beck sings in a thoughtful, almost morose baritone far removed from his familiar hipster inflections.
All of which sounds kind of boring on paper, but isn't boring at all in practice. The melodies are heaven-sent, the hooks are undeniable, and the lyrics are simple yet affecting. It's one of the most straitforwardly enjoyable albums of the decade, an LP that reveals new charms upon multiple listens and never grows old. Sea Change is by all reports a break-up album, composed and recorded in the wake of some sort of interpersonal implosion, and every note sounds it, brilliantly.
Album opener The Golden Age ushers in the album with bright acoustic strums and an upscale country lilt. "Put your hands on the wheel," Beck croons. "Let the golden age begin." It's dreamy, nighttime desert driving music; you can feel the heat of the day giving way to the evening's chill as the steady rhythm section marks out a lonely beat beneath the luminous instrumentation.
"Paper Tiger" uses a spry drum track and stabbing, unleashed strings to dress a down-in-the-mouth cautionary tale. Electric guitar pinprick licks pierce the heavy fabric here and there, letting the sun shine through. Guess I'm Doing Fine is exquisitely haunting, probably the saddest song on the album, and the prettiest. The rhythm section drags the beat behind a simple chord progression as Beck mourns, "All the battlements are empty/ And the moon is laying low/ Yellow roses in the graveyard/ Got no time to watch them grow." The longing is plain, the melody sterling.
"Lost Cause" finds Beck as an amiable troubadour with a heart of barbed wire, an upbeat (for Sea Change) aire built around bouncy acoustic fingerpicking. Round the Bend channels Nick Drake splendidly, ominous string swells and a half-whispered vocal turn the definition of autumn gloom. Elsewhere, "Already Dead" is spot-on Harvest-era Neil Young, with a pastoral, meandering cadence and mellow snare hits, and "Side of the Road" is broken down, cockeyed blues, handsomely outfitted in lazy slide runs and crippled-sounding organ bleats.
I was completely taken aback by Sea Change the first time I heard it, mainly because I was expecting more of Beck's savant-spazz beatsmithery. Instead, I got an at times painfully direct account of a relationship in ruins riding uncomplicated acoustic guitar compositions. And it works effortlessly. So even if Beck seems to have gone off the deep end in recent years, we can at least go back to Sea Change and before to remind us of why, once upon a time, this guy seemed so important.