[In the first half of 2011 we ran a few “Flashback” posts giving a little hindsight loving to great/underrated/forgotten albums from 10 years ago. We didn’t really have a plan or timetable for those posts, but we loved writing them, and from our ongoing photo series of great albums on Facebook it’s clear that you guys like a little reminisce about old greats too, so for 2012 the “Flashback” is being resurrected as a fully fledged feature. We’ll be paying tribute to a great album from 2002 at the end of every month. Here’s my take on Beck’s “Sea Change”, hope you enjoy it and all the others that we have in the pipeline - Alex, reviews editor.]
“Sea Change” is an aptly named album. In fact, “Sea Change” would have been a pretty appropriate name for many of Beck’s pre-2002 releases. With the kaleidoscopic, genre-bending style of banner head albums “Mellow Gold” and “Odelay” tending to define our memories of Beck’s early sound, it’s easy to forget quite how many albums Beck released in this period, and how many of them were essentially genre albums: there was the lo-fi “Stereopathetic”, the folksy “One Foot In The Grave”, the bluesy “Mutations” and the funky “Midnite Vultures”. What was it about “Sea Change” that warranted a title so obviously hinting at a style shift from an artist who essentially did nothing but shift styles?
It certainly wasn’t the sound. The lush guitars and glockenspiel strikes that usher in gorgeous opener “The Golden Age” are executed to heart-melting perfection, but they weren’t new for Beck: the song would sit comfortably next to some of the more settled tracks from “Odelay”, like the closer “Ramshackle” [A brief aside: whichever cruel bastard decided to ruin that album’s serene conclusion by slapping the utterly hideous “Diskobox” on the end of it for some non-US releases deserves a smack]. In fairness, there probably weren’t many ways Beck could have sounded surprising by 2002, as even the more ‘out there’ moments on this largely chilled album, like what can only be described as an orchestra solo towards the end of “Paper Tiger”, come off as a routine: just Beck being Beck.
Where he could still surprise, though, was with his attitude. Beck’s popular explosion with the release of “Loser” in 1994 obviously had quite a lot to do with how awesome that song is, but it was also a result of the aesthetic he embodied: standards were reversed as lazy outsider culture became trendy insider culture, and Beck represented the epitome of a new philosophy of cool that was all about not caring. No matter the stylistic shift, Beck never gave the impression of giving a shit.
Until “Sea Change”. Being a loser was once a badge of honour, but on “Sea Change” Beck tackles his losses with something entirely new: sincerity. “It’s only lies that I’m living / It’s only tears that I’m crying / It’s only you that I’m losing…” croons Beck on “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, and any doubt as to the meaning of that song’s title is dispelled by a glance at the title of the next track, “Lonesome Tears”. This refreshing emotional plainness, with none of the playful conceit that informed Beck’s earlier albums, colours the whole of “Sea Change” as the mainly acoustic arrangements give Beck a chance to lay his heart bare.
The tonal shift was matched by a collection of truly beautiful songs. I’ve already mentioned “The Golden Age”, an opening track so strong that it risks overshadowing the rest of the album, but happily there are others that match it. “Lost Cause”, in fact, surpasses it. Ambient sounds wash over a simple melody as Beck tires of relationship breakdown until his vocals come to the fore for one probing question: “Is that what you thought love was for?” It’s a shiver inducing moment. Elsewhere, though “Sea Change” may be the most uniform in sound of all the great Beck albums, there is some variety, from the absolute minimalism of “It’s All In Your Mind” to the surprising descent into white noise and chaos at the conclusion of “Sunday Sun”. Even the less distinct songs like “Round The Bend” make for great late night listening and reflection.
So “Sea Change” was the first time a Beck album gave pause for thought. It was also the last. With “Guero”, a conscious attempt to return to the collage of sounds of “Odelay”, Beck went back to being the same old Beck, and he’s been the same old Beck ever since. I’m a fan of Beck’s recent output, but none of it captures the attention in the same way that “Sea Change” did. “Sea Change” doesn’t feel like a Beck album; it feels like a Beck Hansen album. It took us closer to the real man than ever before, and we’ll probably never get as close again.