CD Review of Sea Change by Beck
Label
Interscope
Beck: Sea Change

Reviewed by David Medsker

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I
nsert your own Mellow Gold joke here. For most, it's been "This is the album he should have called…," or "The album title came eight years before the album." But the sober truth is this: Three years after the Prince-ish funk fest that is Midnite Vultures, Beck Hansen has made his first serious record. And he hired the perfect person with whom to make it: Nigel Godrich, the man who, uh, produced The Man Who from Travis and oversaw Radiohead's last three albums. Sea Change, Beck's newest, sits where Beck would normally jump, chooses words carefully where Beck usually spits out stream-of- consciousness babble. It's clearly the work of a heartbroken man -- he just split up with his longtime girlfriend -- and Godrich handles the material appropriately. The songs are not just catchy but gorgeous, and Beck has never sounded so vulnerable. Or better.

A quick look at the song titles reveals the mood of the album: "Lonesome Tears," "Lost Cause," "Already Dead"…. Is this a Johnny Cash album in disguise, or perhaps Beck's version of Nebraska? On the surface, that comparison could be made, though it's really closer to the Divine Comedy's Regeneration, also produced by Godrich. The string section that rumbles through "Paper Tiger" is "Madman Across the Water" as told by a solo Springsteen while "Lonesome Tears" has a crescendo that could be from an Elliott Smith record. Beck's voice floats in the same timbre as Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, though Beck's baritone doesn't carry as much reverence as Hannon's boomer. In fact, on "End of the Day," he sounds a lot like Gordon Lightfoot, of all people.

Check out the lyric sheet, too: "These days I barely get by/I don't even try" is the chorus to "The Golden Age," a song that carries just a touch of Radiohead's "No Surprises." "We're just holding on to nothing/To see how long nothing lasts" graces "Paper Tiger." Or the most devastating line of all: "It's only lies that I'm living/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." This is bleak stuff, more like what you'd expect from Nick Cave than the man who once sang, "Love machines on the sympathy crutches/Discount orgies on the dropout buses." But the songs he's framed these lyrics with are the prettiest, headiest things he's ever done. He's always known his way around a hook, but Sea Change is flat out beautiful.

I had always thought of myself as a casual Beck fan, but Sea Change proved to me, at least, that there is no such thing. Since there's no way of knowing which direction he'll turn next, it's best to either fish or cut bait. (Ooh, bad pun. Sorry.) For my money, Sea Change is quite the catch, and possibly the best album Beck's ever done.

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