Review Summary: On "Sea Change", Beck exposes himself as a wonderful singer, and his moans of regret sound like they are coming from the mature, contemplative adult the scrawny Beck looks nothing like.
If nothing else Beck
is a man of many talents. On his smash-hit “Odelay” he is credited as playing not one, not two, but twelve instruments, as well as providing nearly all the vocals. Most listeners were introduced to the man through the wailing chorus “Soy un perdedor/I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me” of his early hit, “Loser”, a self-debasing pop song that bears so little resemblance to anything on “Sea Change” that it’s hard to imagine that the same mind responsible for both works. “Sea Change” is Beck
stripped of the act, a stunningly personal album. Romantic failures have wounded the man. As Bob Dylan wrote on “Blood on the Tracks”, “Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad.” On “Sea Change”, Beck
murmurs, mutters, cries, and wails, producing an album of stunning beauty but annoyingly little range. Whereas Bob went to the trouble of disguising the anguish of the carnival-like “You’ll Make Me Lonesome When You Go” amid a flurry of jovial guitar chords and inserting the jolly (though admittedly annoying) “Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, “Sea Change” consists, with exceptions, of the same quiet pessimism for track after track.
The melancholy journey begins with Beck
driving down “a desolate road with a desolated view” in “The Golden Age”. Driven by a choppy acoustic melody, it’s by miles the best song on the album, striking a perfect cathartic balance between Beck
’s world-weary inner spirit and attempts to escape and movie on. He sits back, relaxes, and sees “distant lights”. These symbols of hope, though, are “far and few”. Indeed, there are moments of recovery scattered around the album. “Yesterdays are mending” in the abstract “Sunday Sun”, and “Side of the Road, a quick recovery piece, treads through the loneliness we’ve come to know ten times earlier before Beck
relents and lets “it pass by the side of the road.”
The zany, lovable distortions and computerized blips of Beck
’s earlier work are almost entirely absent here. “Paper Tiger”, the one notable exception, features a bumpy drum line and wide string surges amid typically lamenting lyrics (“There’s one road back to civilization but there’s no road back to you”). Otherwise, the instrumental lines, almost always led by off-key blues parts played by acoustic guitar, are restrained. This subtlety puts Beck
and his lyrics at the forefront. His voice is certainly up to the challenge, whether artificially contorted in “Guess I’m Doing Fine” or maintaining an endlessly moving holler in the knock-out “Little One”. The lyrics, though, sometimes border on flat melodrama. Take “Lonesome Tears”, where Beck
bluntly states that he “can’t cry them anymore.” A strings line takes over, leading into ninety seconds of soppy strings lines that try much too hard to tug at your soul. “Round the Bend” is nearly the same song. “Life goes where it does/Faster than a bullet/From an empty gun” sounds like a contemplation of suicide, and the cello line and guitar plucking create an ambient atmosphere of all-out misery. It’s pretty, no doubt, but we get the point.
For all the strengths of “Sea Change”, the album could have used a little less of, well, itself. Beck
exposes himself as a wonderful singer, and his moans of regret sound like they are coming from the mature, contemplative adult the scrawny Beck
looks nothing like. “Odelay” may remain his masterpiece, but “Sea Change” nevertheless ranks as one of his best works.