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Loss Highway

 

Beck: Sea Change

DGC/Interscope, 2002

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: September 17, 2002

By Laurence Station

How's this for an unfair deal: famous recording artist and not as well-known girlfriend break up. The recording artist gets to tell his side of the story through music, while the ex-lover has no such forum at her disposal. A recipe for bitterness and further dissension, right? After all, chronicling the emotional fallout of a recently ended long-term relationship can easily lead an artist into the trap of whiny, indulgent and accusatory "why me?" mope-rock.

But such, fortunately, is not the case with Sea Change, Beck's new country-blues flavored travelogue of heartbreak (and seventh studio album). When done well, as is the case with the brilliant Sea Change, a breakup album can transcend the singular relationship it documents, forgoing the easy gratification of "done me wrong" songs and instead gesturing to the pain felt by all those who've experienced the severing of a close emotional bond.

Evoking a late night drive along an isolated stretch of road toward an uncertain destination, Sea Change tracks the conflicted emotions swirling about a broken-hearted driver as he attempts to reconcile the bitterness over a breakup with a deeper sense of perspective regarding love and loss. That sense of reluctant forward motion, of escape tinged with reflection, is evident from the outset. In the opening "The Golden Age," Beck sings "Put your hands on the wheel/Let the golden age begin." The line perfectly conveys the image of its narrator moving away from the messiness of a busted affair, yet looking in the rearview mirror as if hoping the backward glance will impart some new insight into how things went so wrong.

Indeed, Sea Change veers between frustration and resigned regret, much as it moves between stripped down, acoustic-based numbers and full-bodied orchestral pieces. It's more somber than bitter, more concerned with figuring out how things went wrong than assigning blame. There are no "Idiot Wind" attacks upon the former lover -- even as, on "Paper Tiger," Beck makes it clear any chance of reconciliation is out of the question, commenting (or lamenting) "One road back to civilization/But there's no road back for you." "Lonesome Tears" questions how the jilted partner could have allowed himself to be duped into thinking what he had with his lover could last forever. Soaring strings bring the song to an unresolved, frustrated climax, subtly accentuating the point that there are no obvious answers when it comes to matters of the heart.

And thankfully, Sea Change offers none, opting instead to shed a sympathetic light on the anguished questions and surging emotions of love gone wrong. In the melancholy "Lost Cause," Beck glumly intones "This town's crazy/Nobody cares," while looking for anything of value or worth in the couple's time together. "It's All in Your Mind" ponders if friendship is still possible, but "Paper Tiger" and the languid "Round the Bend" make it obvious that there can be no turning back. Intimate relationships, exposing the best and worst aspects of their participants, dissolve from the weight of their own emotional baggage, shared history and the painful, lingering memories of happier times. Beck's examination of this issue -- the post-breakup world of ex-lovers -- is Sea Change's greatest accomplishment, in the tradition of other notable breakup records like Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker and Guided by Voices' Isolation Drills.

By the time Beck gets to "Already Dead," where "Days fade to black/In the light of what they lack," the song cycle has reached its nadir: The traveler can either succumb to his grief, giving up hope of ever finding true happiness, or pick himself up and try again. The closing "Side of the Road" finds the traveler's burdens ultimately set aside, and it's obvious that the experience hasn't completely corrupted his bruised but unbroken romantic world view.

Sea Change is the most thematically cohesive, musically consistent and sharply focused album of Beck's career. It's also his most nakedly emotional and lyrically forthcoming effort. While producer Nigel Godrich (who worked with Beck on 1998's excellent Mutations) layers distinctive beats, electronic embellishments and thoughtfully sequenced samples throughout the mix, it's all done with such care and subtlety so as not to detract from the music itself. Special mention must also be made regarding the excellent work guitarist Smokey Hormel contributes, and the emotively dramatic string arrangements courtesy of Beck's father, David Campbell.

Reigning in the schizophrenic mishmash of styles that's colored and defined his work since 1994's Mellow Gold, Beck has stepped from behind the smug, safe barrier of ironic musings and too-clever wordplay to reveal an artist unafraid to lay bare his soul. That he does so in such an honest and accomplished manner is a testament to his increased maturity as an artist and a person. Sea Change is, quite simply, Beck's masterpiece.

 
Beck to Basics
Those interested in exploring the many sides of Beck Hansen have an array of styles to choose from. Early Beck (Stereopathetic Soul Manure, One Foot in the Grave and the aforementioned Mellow Gold, all released in 1994) tends toward lo-fi production values and quirky noise-folk experimentation, while Odelay, Beck's critically-lauded 1996 collaboration with the Dust Brothers, is a brilliant junk-culture mix of styles, samples and sounds -- perhaps his definitive experimental (and most accessible) work. 1997's Mutations effortlessly blends Tropicalia with psychedelic '60s Brit-pop, while his last release, 1999's Midnite Vultures, proves a hit-or-miss parody/tribute to New Power Generation-era Prince and spaced-out '70s funk masters.

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 Ratings Key:
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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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