It’s a miserable, rainy, gray afternoon in New York. Beck is so miserable. Sea Change is near perfect.
Listening to his voice, stripped of electronic distortions and missing any smirk of irony, it seems almost naked. How can anyone listen to this album and not fall in love with the vulnerable little arty boy behind it who always sounds on the verge of tears?
But gone are the grandstanding theatrics of his earlier albums. Jarringly intimate, Sea Change has little in common Beck’s previous offering, 1999’s dripping-with-irony (and, in my opinion, distant and slightly irritating) party album Midnight Vultures. Acoustic guitars, pianos, strings and synth-y swishes are subtly orchestrated.
Did you ever think you would hear him sing, dead earnest, “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” (from “Guess I’m Doing Fine”)? Though they sometimes stray into cliche, the lyrics never waver in the melancholic bent. “We’re just holding on to nothing/ to see how long nothing lasts” (“Paper Tiger”).
Often compared to his 1998 album, Mutations, Sea Change is closer in spirit to the sad, introspective songs of his country-music heroes like Hank Williams than to anything in Beck’s previous oeuvre. Incidentally, on the Hank Williams tribute album Timeless, Beck does a stunningly gorgeous version of “Your Cheating Heart.” His signature spacey ethereal soundscape is grounded by Williams’ plaintive lyrics. Released about a year ago, Beck’s track proved to be a hauntingly beautiful and accurate foreshadowing of what was to come on Sea Change.
The phrase “sea change” means a dramatic change or transformation. And this album, reportedly written after Beck’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend ended after he caught her hand in someone else’s cookie jar, seems to reflect the turmoil that his personal life was thrown into. Beck sounds dumbstruck, reaching out to his listeners with wide-eyed confusion. In the dirge-y “Lonesome Tears” he sings, “How could this love/ ever changing/ never turn its back on me,” while string arrangements rise in an overwhelming tide of shimmering froth. In “Little One” (“Sailors run aground / in a sea change nothing is safe / strange waves / push us every way / in a stolen boat we’ll float away / little one / hold on”), he’s trapped inside the musical swells, a rising and falling black sea of guitars and pianos.
Twanging guitar swoons fill out the album’s opener, “The Golden Age,” while little more than percussion and wandering keyboard lines hold up the confessional “End of the Day.” The acoustic “Lost Cause,” with the line “Baby, you’re a lost cause,” is the album’s closet thing to a fuck-you song. Relying mostly on acoustic guitar and Beck’s slightly wavering voice, there’s an incredibly personal feel to all of the songs on the album.
On “Already Dead,” he sings “days fade to black / in the light of what they lack.” His music is soothing like a soft old blanket on a rainy day, wrapping up his listener even as he tries to comfort himself.