Beck returns with a reflective album showcasing his songwriting skills. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…
Beck’s new album hits the shelves on September 24 and from the sounds of it, he’s been listening to my 70s Creep Out Mix. Closer to Mutations than Midnight Vultures, Sea Change apes neither. It has its own identity, one of large sweaters, pipes and dark wood paneling. Ornate orchestration lifted straight from a James Coburn high drama and thickly reverbed backing vocals give a distinct rec. room feel.
The story goes that the songs come from Beck’s heartbreak over the end of a long relationship. Rumors a while back had our hero dumping his girlfriend and nailing Gen X party favor Winona Ryder. I don’t buy it. These are songs of loss. Beck’s not out whooping it up like a frat boy newly single after the Fall formal.
This is an album for devoted Beckheads. If you’re a casual Beck fan who loves Odelay, was annoyed by Mutations and has never even heard of One Foot in the Grave, Sea Change may take some time to grow on you. But let it. This is Beck at his most introspective; it’s Beck growing as a songwriter. But you won’t find any of the funky musings that have made Beck the crown prince of party music. No, this is personal.
Sea Change feels more like an internal dialogue, almost embarrassingly so. You sometimes get the feeling you’re reading someone’s diary. Beck’s unique, cryptic lyrics reading like a secret code that only the author should know, the words strike a feeling without forming a specific thought in the listener’s mind. That is why Beck is in a league of his own when it comes to songwriting.
From the opening strains of “The Golden Age,” ripe with acoustic strummings lifted off of the Stones’ “Angie,” Sea Change delves beyond the scattered programming and sampling of Beck’s mind to the core of his heart. “The Golden Age” eventually drifts into reverb-laden dreaminess, wrought with loss and humility.
The song opens with “Put your hands on the wheel/Let the golden age begin.” A reference to that most perfect of moments in a relationship where it all comes together: The Golden Age. But the feel of the song is more reflective than optimistic. It’s like he’s remembering the beginning of that beautiful moment, a moment he’s no longer in.
The second track, “Paper Tiger” is lush with a funky bass line and orchestration that would sound right at home in 70s detective show “The Streets of San Francisco.” This isn’t schmaltz though, the orchestration builds tension and adds drama to a mysterious and puzzling song that might otherwise lose a less attentive listener.
The first of two clear nods to Gordon Lightfoot makes its appearance in the third slot. “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and the following “End of the Day” pay homage to the Canadian folky’s laidback style and haunting singing. Grab your fave wool sweater and a can of Prince Alberts’ pipe tobacco, fall’s moving in and the Edmund Fitzgerald is breaking up.
Beck is a master of blending genres, moods and sounds to create his own sonic voice. “Lonesome Tears” starts out low and slow, like an Air song, but then builds into a dramatic chorus reminiscent of Echo and The Bunnymen. Sounds absurd? I’m talking about Beck, the reigning king of absurdity and it works.
Perhaps Beck is as susceptible to alt.country as the rest of the world. That’s good news. His take on country folk has always led to interesting new turns on a genre prone to mimicry and nostalgia. “Lost Cause” finds Beck backed by acoustic picking and soft organs. His unique sense of melody and words give the song a freshness not often found in a genre dominated by knockoffs.
Taking folk-rock a step further, Beck revisits early Neil Young with “Round the Bend” and “Already Dead to Me Now.” The former finding similarities to the softer moments on Neil’s solo debut while the latter has lyrics as shockingly heartbreaking as Young’s “Doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you.” Again, Beck’s ability to reach into his own psyche and pull out phrases that seem initially elusive but universal after reflection, establish him as a supreme lyricist.
“Sunday Sun” opens with tinkling dissonant piano notes and leads to a soaring chorus. Eastern music and percussion most likely sampled from his grandmother’s organ crash into a mass of distortion and Ringo-esque drums. Not an earth-shattering song, but interesting enough.
“Little One” is a return to Mutations territory. Liked that album? You’ll like this song.
The only stumble on the album is track seven’s “It’s all in your mind,” which is interesting and painted with creepy space sounds, but not as engaging as the rest of the album.
Beck once again turns in an album that stretches his musical points of reference and creates a work distinctly his. He is an artist above all. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t like Beck, we can’t even be friends.