Drifting at Sea
I admit I was one of those people who didn’t “get” Beck when he first appeared on the scene in the early ‘90s. I found “Loser” to be the worst kind of white-boy rap posturing, and what I heard of the rest of Mellow Gold didn’t impress me much more. And when critics and fans alike went positively nuts over Odelay, I was baffled. Okay, the kid was finally showing a real sense of groove on tracks like “Where’s It At”, but most of the album was more like “Devil’s Haircut”—gimmicky, cluttered production masking shallow pop songwriting of the most disposible variety. Why was everyone making such a fuss over this stuff?
Obviously, everyone else was right and I was wrong, because with 1998’s Mutations, Beck stripped away the Beastie-Boy-wannabe cut-and-paste noodling and went into the studio with an actual band, releasing a deceptively straightforward record that I would argue still stands as his best. On tracks like “Nobody’s Fault”, “Bottle of Blues” and especially the wickedly slinky bossa nova romp “Tropicalia”, Beck finally overcame whatever inferiority complex he had acquired during his years in L.A. as the favorite solo acoustic opening act for big, noisy, experimental rock bands. Instead of throwing the kitchen sink at everything, he switched to a heady and very cool mix of ‘60s-style psychedelia and ‘70s-style stoner rock, a sound that perfectly suited his slurred singing voice and hallucinatory lyrics. Plenty of doubters, myself included, finally had to admit: Okay, this guy is a major talent.
So when I heard that Beck’s latest effort, Sea Change, would reunite him with Mutations producer Nigel Godrich, I naturally got pretty excited. And when the album came out without any of the promotional caveats that had accompanied Mutations (which was billed as Beck’s “unofficial” followup to Odelay!, presumably to avoid permanently scaring off fans of that record’s junk culture vibe), I got even more excited. Could it be that Beck had teamed up with his best producer, the guy who brought us Radiohead’s Amnesiac, to make an album with the same dizzying post-R&B energy as 2000’s outstanding Midnight Vultures? Could Beck fans really be that lucky?
Well, as it turns out, no. Sea Change, while still a very good disc, is a disappointment in that it marks the first time Beck has ever retraced his steps. With a few notable exceptions, it’s Mutations revisited: more sleepy stoner rock, with perhaps darker lyrics and more use of strings but little else to distinguish it from its brilliant predecessor.
Things start off promisingly enough with “The Golden Age”, a dreamy acoustic-guitar-driven dirge whose opening lyrics echo the best-known of Beck’s west coast country-rock forebears, the Eagles: “Window down and the moonlight on your skin/Desert wind cools your aching head”. Instead of stopping for the night at the Hotel California, however, Beck’s narrator just keeps going: “Drive all night, just to feel like you’re okay”. After the satirical jabs at L.A.‘s urban hipster demimonde that made Midnight Vultures Beck’s most lyrically vivid album, it’s clear that he’s escaping here to a more personal, less particular landscape; the imagery on Sea Change is as murky as Beck’s narcoleptic singing voice. What the heck, for example, is a “stray dog gone defective”, one of the recurring visuals on “Paper Tiger”? Who knows? Or, heck, maybe that’s not even what he’s singing; there are so many marbles in Beck’s mouth at times that he’s virtually unintelligible.
For all its lyrical opacity, “Paper Tiger” is one of Sea Changes‘s highlights, a pulsating slab of psychedelic rock with a molasses-thick bassline and guitars and strings that stab in and out of the mix with the rock-opera melodrama of David Bowie’s best pre-Ziggy work. The next track, “Guess I’m Doin’ Fine”, returns to trippy country-rock terrain, but keeps things interesting, thanks in large part to Beck’s singing, which is more confident and soulful than it was on Mutations; a heavy touring schedule over the last two years has clearly done him good.
By the halfway mark, however, Sea Change has bogged down in its sleepy stoner rock vibe to the point where it actually starts to get boring, the last adjective I ever thought I would use to describe Beck’s music. It’s not that the dirge-like “Lonesome Tears” or the After the Gold Rush meets Automatic for the People atmosphere of “Nothing I Haven’t Seen” are bad; it’s just that there’s nothing here to break up the lulling effect of all those warmly strummed guitars and soothingly melancholy chord changes. By the time Beck gets to “All in Your Mind”, the album’s weakest track, even I found myself pining for the sonic clutter of his Odelay days.
Sea Change bounces back in a major way with “Round the Bend”, a gorgeously hypnotic, string-laden track with a tune that borrows from “Nobody’s Fault” off Mutations but pushes it in an entirely new direction. Even Beck’s voice sounds different here—warmer, more seductive, Donovan in his hippie-shaman mode. Like the rest of Sea Change, there’s a decidedly retro feel to “Round the Bend”, but at the same it strikes you as something no one’s ever done before—a paradox that’s as good a way of summing up Beck’s talent as any.
After the nicely trippy “Already Dead”, Beck delivers up another breakthrough track, completing the trilogy (along with “Paper Tiger” and “Round the Bend”) of tunes that redeem Sea Change for those of us who expect him to actually surprise us once in awhile. “Sunday Sun” is Beck’s version of a ‘60s raga-rock epic, and he nails it perfectly, building from a simple opening base of tinkly percussion and sitar twangs into a soaring chorus that again highlights his growing vocal versatility. It’s incredible how good he can be at taking the sounds of old genres and recycling them into something new.
Sea Change ends as it began, in quiet country-rock mode. “Little One” has a melody and soft-loud dynamic that highlights Beck’s vocal resemblance to Kurt Cobain; it’s that Vicodin-tinged, slurred-speech delivery, I suppose, but it made me wonder if the two aren’t similar in other ways—in their gift for making melancholic, minor key songs actually sound catchy, for example. Who knows? Maybe Beck will strap on a Stratocaster one of these days and blow us all away with some post-punk sonic mayhem. On “Side of the Road”, the album’s folk-acoustic closer, it’s clear he still hasn’t gotten to wherever it is he’s going; he’s back on that same open road he started on, searching for “something better than this / Someplace I’d like to go”. With an artist of Beck’s stature, I think it’s fair for all of us to expect “something better” than Sea Change, and I’ve no doubt he’ll give it to us eventually. Meanwhile, Sea Change is a solid transitional disc, enjoyable but a far cry from Beck’s best.