Again and again, Beck's words reflect the cynicism born of betrayal and longing...
Chris Jones 2002-11-20
Lazy journalism dictates that all reviews of a new Beck album must make reference to the fact that he is a 'post-modern Prince' and that his lyrics tend to be 'surreal wordplay with a hip hop edge'. Well, scratch all that because, compared to his last release - the sexy funk pot-pourri, Midnite Vultures -this is about as straightforward as he's ever been. If Midnite Vultures was his seduction album, Sea Change is his bitter break-up opus. Yes, someone has broken Beck's heart and, for better or worse, we're invited along for the ride.
Always invested with the ability to skip genres, Mr Hansen returns to the melancholy folk template last seen on Mutations tracks such as ''Nobody's Fault But My Own'', but existential angst is replaced by desolate tales of despair and loss. Anyone fond of the white suit-wearing, body popping art terrorist will be disappointed. Maturity, it seems, has taken its toll on our boy, but the stripped back honesty of his approach, with acoustic guitars tastefully picked throughout, perfectly suits the subject matter. The song titles tell the whole story; ''Lost Cause'' (''I'm tired of fighting, fighting for a lost cause''), ''Lonesome Tears'' (''Oh they ruin me every time'') and ''Already Dead (''Days turn to sand'') while the exquisite production, courtesy of Nigel Godrich, perfectly captures the desert-dry keening of crushed dreams. After this and OK Computer Godrich's must be the only number to ring if you wish your album to be as maudlin as a Sunday round at Morrissey's gaff .
Sea Change displays a cohesiveness that, again, defies expectations from the magpie kid. Only the somewhat sullen and perfunctory guitar trashing sequence at the end of ''Sunday Sun'' threatens the ambience. However, the rewards are plenty for the stout-hearted, with minute attention to detail in subtle instrumentation (check Jason Faulkner's tasty licks on the mogadon hip hop of ''Paper Tiger'') and arrangements. Beck's own dad, David Campbell (a veteran of the LA studio scene from Jackson Browne to, gulp, Aerosmith), provides strings that keep the hairs on your neck erect at all times; especially on the Nick Drake homage ''Round The Bend'' and the aforementioned ''Paper Tiger''.
Again and again, Beck's words reflect the cynicism born of betrayal and longing. Desert imagery becomes a metaphor forwashed-up, strung-out weariness. Yet, on the ironically-titled opener ''The Golden Age'', it also serves as a space where care can be sloughed off: ''Let the desert wind cool your aching head. Let the weight of the world drift away instead. These days I barely get by. I don't even try''. The whole album-as-catharsis exercise leaves the listener exhausted but undeniably moved. Its slightly self-pitying tone means that it falls some way short of being Beck's Blood On The Tracks, but taken as a whole this is as finely-crafted and achingly beautiful as anything you''ll hear this year. Bruised, but most definitely unbowed.