Beck: Sea Change
if you like this you'll like: 1990s David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Pulp's This is Hardcore, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
REVIEW: Beck: Sea Change
Beck: Sea Change [DGC, 2002] (stream)
Three words? unfortunately... slow drowning.
Maybe Beck really did want to record an album of startling and stripped-down heartbreak. Maybe his aim really was to follow in the footsteps of Nick Drake and (according to some interviews) Radiohead's Kid A, exploring sadness with the help of folk guitars and computer shimmering. Maybe. But if he did, he has failed. Sea Change is not truly miserable, nor even melancholy; it's not particularly quiet, nor raw. The music videos won't use empty attics and slowly-shifting bars of sunlight; they'll show enormous waves crashing against a cliffside, Beck sitting in a gazebo, pouting meditatively.
"Lonesome Tears", the album's fourth song, encapsulates the problem. We open with a strange, stumbling drum beat, then a cold rinse of purple strings. Beck's sounds solemn, reflective, but in these verses he staunchly refuses to emote. Does he care about what he's singing? "Lonesome tears / I can't cry them any more." Well, apparently not. At least, not until the chorus. There, Beck tries to pull a fast one. This is a sad folk song, right? Mournful. Mature. Then what the fuck is the late-Eighties rock chorus doing here? Mr Hansen grabs the violins off of Metallica's orchestral S&M album, slowing them down to try and hide their anthemic oomph, then cheesily pushing them higher and higher, skyward, as the smoke machines puff and the inflatable stormcloud descends from the catwalk. Granted, the above is a comment on the aesthetic of "Lonesome Tears", and not of itself a criticism. The problem is not that Beck's hiding a Def Leppard song under faux-folk, but that the result is absolutely boring. Anthemic, yes. Anthem, no.
The problem permeates Sea Change like a persistent barnacle. Beck sings about his absolute listlessness, and he sings it absolutely listlessly. The arrangements flutter around him like greying wallpaper, distracting at points but never worth paying attention to. A lap steel waffles, an electronic squiggle squiggles, a bleep bleeps, but none of it is productive - everything (but the syruppy, ubiquitous "ooh"s) is window-dressing. Beck's emotional material, his lingering pace suggest folk music, but that's not what these are. They are pop songs. Unlike "Already Dead" or "Lonesome Tears", the pounding, declaratory "Little One" at least knows that it's a pop song, but even there the song falls asleep on its feet. This lethargy doesn't bring gravitas or melancholia, it brings boredom. Sea Change is everything that Wilco's brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was not; whereas YHF took sad pop songs and split them apart, spread them out, filled the spaces with creaky floorboards and lovers' whispers, Beck simply clicked a button in Pro Tools and made his twelve songs play at half-speed.
Given Beck's considerable oeuvre, given his unmistakeable gift, it's alarming to see him step so wrong. He has produced shuffling new-folk before (see 1998's hip, clear-eyed Mutations), and in earlier days recorded some genuinely raw heartbreak (1994's One Foot in the Grave includes the suicidal masterpiece "I Get Lonesome"). Why then does Sea Change seem played-out even as it is just starting? The disc's high points - bizarre and sinister Beat rock on "Paper Tiger", the simple and Dylanesque "Lost Cause" - drown under the never-ending water torture of the songs that surround them. Songs begin with potential ("All In Your Mind", "Side of the Road"), then barely stagger four steps before collapsing, melting, raising the water-level. Soon it's impossible to breathe, and before you: something thick, wet, blue-grey and ambivalent.