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Beck's 'Sea Change' Turns 10

James Jackson Toth

©John Shearer-Invision-AP
Beck's 'Sea Change'

In 2012, the very idea of a breakup record has been rendered something of an anachronism. The divorce-album-as-discographical-inevitability is a phenomenon that historically occurs deep into an established artist's career, and very few new artists are afforded that sort of shelf life anymore. But it wasn't long ago that the notion of a mainstream artist gambling their reputation by over-sharing was as ubiquitous a rock and roll cliché as the double live album and the heroic destruction of a Doubletree suite. Records like Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks," Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear," and Val Stoecklein's "Grey Life" express the near-universality of deflated expectations. At their best, they resonate with anyone who's ever had a case of the answering machine blues. At their worst, their self-pitying solipsism still makes for great art. Beck's "Sea Change" is one of the last of the records in this great tradition, and on Sept. 24, it turned 10 years old.

Beck had bared his soul before, in a sense, on 1998's "Mutations," and like "Sea Change," that album followed an impersonal, irony-saturated work with a more reflective, earnest one. But it's easy to mistake "Mutations'" largely acoustic mood for actual primacy. Beck is one of pop music's great chameleons, but his capriciousness works best from album to album, and not from song to song, when his eclectic leanings can often sound satiric and insincere. Peppered throughout "Mutations" are odious genre experiments -- colonialist tropicalia, druggy psych folk, fatback r&b -- that consistently break the album's spell. This impish insistence on the blending of every sound he has ever heard has rightfully earned Beck as many detractors as fans. "Sea Change," however, finds our hero exploring a single theme: heartbreak. For this gesture of thematic focus alone, "Sea Change" is an achievement. The fact that the album features the same band as the markedly different "Midnite Vultures" is also a testament to Beck's immaculate vision, as well as his warranted trust in a group that effortlessly matches his own versatility.

More importantly, "Sea Change" most differs from the disputatious "Mutations" (and other acoustic-based albums like the great "One Foot In The Grave") in that it is not so much mellow as it is lush, and it's not so much personal as it is, well, sad. Beck's well-publicized breakup (with his girlfriend of nine years and fiancé Leigh Limon) provides the context for these songs, and he sounds as if he's aged 25 years since "Midnite Vultures" -- compare his vocals on "End Of The Day" to "Debra." All the studio sheen in the world can't really disguise the fact that dude's been seriously, irreparably damaged by this breakup.

Bing: More music and videos from Beck

Producer Nigel Godrich's reputation as something of a King Midas for post-grunge acts is well earned. His production, here and elsewhere, is of the "you get what you pay for" variety, and "Sea Change" quite literally sounds like a million dollars. The reverb on Beck's voice alone -- rich and full-bodied -- sounds as if it has been worked-over for weeks. Still, for a supposedly mellow album of songs about heartbreak and loss, Sea Change can come off as oppressive, frequently dramatic when intimate and woozy would do. Occasionally, it sounds like "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" for people who collect vintage pinball machines.

And then there are those pesky accusations of theft. Oscar Wilde almost certainly had Beck in his crystal ball when he uttered his famous quip about talent borrowing and genius stealing. Critics have always bayed in adulation at Beck's Prince-ly poses and obscurist MCing, but Beck's affinity for pastiche is not at all limited to schizophrenic classics like "Odelay." On "Sea Change," the objects of Beck's affection are mostly Serge Gainsbourg and AM radio navel-gazers of yore like Graham Nash, Gordon Lightfoot and Poco. The similarity between the arrangement of "Paper Tiger" and Gainsbourg's "L'hotel Particulier," for instance, is uncanny. Many frothing haters will also tell you, quite correctly, that "Round the Bend" -- one of Sea Change's most stunning songs -- pretty blatantly cops Nick Drake's "River Man." Now, this may seem like criticism, but Beck has always approached his records with the decorous eye of a museum curator (see also: Air, Ween, Beastie Boys), so why should his approach differ now that he's finally dealing in actual feelings? It is crucial to remember that Beck's a folkie at heart -- his earliest records make this clear -- and what is folk music (or blues, for that matter) without appropriation? If the primary distinction of "Sea Change" is that it attempts to be timeless rather than merely timely, it only does so by dialing back the kitsch and referencing things that are actually good instead of ironically good. Taking that into account, the sound of "Sea Change" isn't much of a departure at all.

But this isn't an instrumental album, and if the form of "Sea Change" remains consistent with Beck's body of work, the content is anything but. This is not merely a record of breakup songs, but one of highly specialized breakup songs. The tone throughout is reflective and resigned; the complete lack of bitterness or cynicism in the lyrics sets it apart from any other record like it. On "Sea Change," Beck isn't scissoring the faces of his ex out of old Polaroids, and he's not muttering or sobbing or calling to see if anyone answers and then hanging up; he's just totally, thoroughly, pitiably disappointed. For proof, listen closely to the last few seconds of "Lost Cause," when Beck lets out an exhausted sigh. It concludes one of the album's most devastating songs with one of its most revealing, beautiful moments. Later, when Beck groans "I wanted to be a good friend" on the Big Star-esque "All In Your Mind," the prior suggestion to do away with the self-described perdedor on "Loser" suddenly seems more humane than humorous. The lyrics of "Sea Change" are sung from a position of bummed vulnerability, but they are rarely trite, which is one of the more admirable high wire acts of the sensitive singer-songwriter. In the end, it's the maturity with which Beck handles this split that may be the most unsettling thing about it.

If this all sounds more the domain of a sad sack the likes of, say, Neil Halstead than that of a man whose former lyrical concerns revolved around Satanic tacos and dildos large enough to crush the sun, consider that Beck was 32, richer than God, and utterly heartbroken when he recorded "Sea Change." An enduring, well-loved record is certainly the best thing anyone could have hoped to emerge from such circumstances. I dig this version of Beck: the leaf blower-wielding performance artist reborn as heartbroken bohemian superstar. And there is, of course, a perverse moral to be found in the woeful tale of "Sea Change," as well: Even after years of running on rocket power, it's good to know that even our biggest stars, too, occasionally get nailed to the ground.

Also on Stereogum:
Beck covers Caetano Veloso
Beck at Outside Lands festival
Back makes video game music

Copyright 2012 Buzz Media

Oct 2, 2012 9:20PM

Yup, just got rehooked on this disc a few weeks ago.  It's so thoroughly beautiful without being whiney or sappy.  Yup, article was way too wordy.  Read it all but was bored by the end, which I didn't think was possible reading an article about one of my all time favorite albums.  (Yup, still call them that too.)  Why compare Odelay and Sea Change? 

Sep 30, 2012 1:05AM
Beck is about the only original musician to come out in the last decade or so.  Most music today is phony tripe made to shock and get Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame". 
Sep 29, 2012 9:52PM
OK, If I understand, the gist of this article is: Beck threw much of his influences in a blender and  wrote an album(I still call them that) about breaking up that dealt with the subject in a rare way and that no more recent artist has been around long enough to make  a cohesive album on the subject since.
Sep 29, 2012 8:52PM
who the hell is writing this, webster, of webster's dictionary?  use real words ****, no one understands this ****
Sep 29, 2012 7:32PM
Congratulations to Beck for having an album that's 10 years old...but Odelay was so much better...and this article was so hard to read that I gave up after the first paragraph...jeez...
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