Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Beck – Sea Change

on July 04, 2009, 8:00am

Out of all of Beck’s albums, there is none more appropriately titled than Sea Change. Not only did the 2002 release represent a shift in the songwriter’s musical style but it also symbolized a significant change in his personal life.

During most of the 1990s, where Beck was rewriting the rules for alternative rock, what with Mellow Gold, Odelay, Mutations, and Midnite Vultures, he was also in a relationship with designer Leigh Limon. The end of their nearly decade long relationship brought a complete overhaul to the guy’s music, beginning with most, if not all, of the material on Sea Change. The heavy sampling, irony-slinging, upbeat rapping that put Beck on the proverbial musical pedestal is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the songs capitalize on live instrumentation and more introspective (call it “personal”) lyrics which result in the most straightforward album in the man’’s career.

From the second the acoustic guitar of “The Golden Age” kicks in, the difference compared to his earlier work is very clear. There’s no weird funkadelic noises. All that surfaces is guitar, bass, drums, and Beck’s voice. The emotional depth in his vocals sounds like he’s barely holding himself together. When he says, “Let the golden age begin,” it’s more of a plea than a demand. This is followed by “Paper Tiger”, a track that reels in the listener with bass and drums and hugs them tightly with some light electric guitar. The aggressive backing orchestra helps, too. On “Tiger”, Beck sings about “being torn apart by idle hands” and how there’s no way back to the relationship he’s lost. Peachy, right?

This melancholic outlook continues with the album’s most morose track, yet also its best: “Guess I’m Doing Fine”. By focusing on Beck’s voice and his breezy acoustic strumming, the lyrics reflect his attempt to convince himself that what he’s losing isn’t that important, even though everything’s seemed to change for the worse. “It’s only lies that I’m living/It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine.” Every listener knows he’s not doing fine, but he’s desperate to convince himself otherwise, and that’s what he sells us on.

Oddly enough, and in a purely musical sense, “Lonesome Tears” could pass for a more downbeat theme song to a new James Bond inclusion. Throughout the track, Beck hides the songwriting and becomes this bold orator, preaching about how love can be so many things but none of them seem to work for him, or maybe us. To add to the influence, the strings continue to build until they’re almost shrill, eventually washing away.

Let’s be fair, though. Not all of the songs on Sea Change focus on Beck lamenting over the end of his relationship. “Lost Cause” shows that he’s willing to move on and he knows that what he’s lost isn’t worth fighting for, and there’s even proof he’s tried to amend things over. “It’s All In Your Mind” directly addresses the girl in question as he speaks about how he wanted to be “good friends” with her but she has a “devil up her sleeve.” Good for him.

While this album may be a complete shift in style to his past work, the Beck of the ’90s does peek through a little, especially on one of the album’s highlights, “Sunday Sun.” Working off a Middle-Eastern guitar riff, the song shies away from relationship troubles and is overall more upbeat, at least amidst the rest of the album. Some of his best lyrics chime in, too. When he sings, “Jealous minds walk in a line” and “Looking for a satellite/In the rays of heaven again,” it’s a brilliant fusion of his less direct ’90s style and the more serious tone of this album. To top it off, we’re rewarded with an explosion of guitar feedback and general noise — it’s Beck at his angriest moment on record. In retrospect, it kind of works as a prelude to last year’s Modern Guilt.

By the end of the album, Beck has completely exhausted himself emotionally and taken the audience through this chaotic cluster of feelings he dealt with during this breakup. If you really want to get fourth dimensional, the 12 tracks here sort of act as Beck’s therapy for what he went through, and they allow him to get everything that was happening off his chest, and perhaps let him move on with his life. There were no devil’s haircuts this time around. The devils were found in the flaws of two people who tried to stick together and failed. It was only through Sea Change that Beck was able to exorcise the demons that haunted him — and what a horrific yet beautiful deed it’s been.

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