On one of his first published songs, “Cold Ass Fashion,” Beck opined: “Where can you go when they shoot you full of pigeonholes? There ain’t nothing like the real artificial.” This ironic oracle has served as Beck’s mantra as he’s spliced together the beauty, irony and energy of post-1960’s popular music into six albums that are monumental junk-sculptures.
On Sea Change, Beck peels back the accumulated layers of irony, novelty and canny wit of “the real artificial” to expose a stark soundscape; he achieves a level of sincerity few artists dare to approach. The result is dreamy, melodious, and totally free of static and noise. Unfortunately, it’s also dreary, moribund, and tonally static and numb. Sea Change might be a leap forward for Beck, but that’s a small consolation for fans who prefer “the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow” to the “snakepit of souls” and the “cinders from the sky.”
A Beck album named Sea Change seems as redundant as a Beach Boys album called Happy or a George Clinton album Funky; Beck jumps genres and avoids continuity like a hobo hops boxcars and outfoxes railroad bulls. After emerging under the shadow of grunge in 1993 with the basement-recorded hit “Loser,” Beck rose from the kitchen-sink indie of Mellow Gold to the lo-fi punk-folk of One Foot in the Grave, and crested with the funky buzz-saw beats of Odelay. His last album, 1999’s overindulgent R&B orgy Midnite Vultures, was hip, sexy, intellectualized, and dripping with caustic irony — the antithesis of Sea Change.
But Sea Change follows a distinct Beck tradition. It finds roots in the scattered dark tracks that were Beck’s best, like “Nobody’s Fault but My Own,” “Rowboat” and “Feather in your Cap.” Like these, several songs on Sea Change are rare, obsidian orchestrations. Producer Nigel Godrich deftly blends Beck’s rich, hushed vocals with cold Radiohead atmospherics and lush string arrangements by Beck’s father, David Campbell. Three exceptional tracks — “Paper Tigers,” “Lonesome Tears” and “Sunday Sun” — fuse warm melodies and jazzy beats into cathartic arias.
Despite its name, this album is a sea unchanging. Beck’s sound swells with grace and sublimity. Each track emerges and recedes gently, without break or froth. But the waves are relentless, the despair overwhelming. Allegedly, the album is the story of a breakup, but it lacks emotional range. It often sounds like the soundtrack to a nuclear winter, bleak and ceaseless. Without hope, Beck celebrates mere survival.
Lost in introspection, Beck untaps severe, truthful music. But he has abandoned his exterior exploration of a Los Angelized America in which he found such brilliant beauty and warm humor. I hope he’ll venture back into the sunlit world soon — guiding us through the real artificial with his newfound maturity and sincerity.