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Reviewed by David Medsker
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.