BECK: SEA CHANGE (2002)
1) Golden Age; 2) Paper Tiger; 3) Guess I'm Doing Fine; 4) Lonesome Tears; 5) Lost Cause; 6) End Of The Day; 7) It's All In Your Mind; 8) Round The Bend; 9) Already Dead; 10) Sunday Sun; 11) Little One; 12) Side Of The Road.
«The Breakup Album». Where would we be without the concept? No Blood On The Tracks, no Rumours, no Adele, no Aimee Mann... no Tunnel Of Love or Jagged Little Pill, either, but the overall number of «efficient» breakup albums that immediately spring to mind is still larger than the amount of breakup albums with an unlucky correlation of substance and form. (Even Jagged Little Pill could have been so much better with a different musical philosophy). Even today, when it is normal for breakups to come at a dime a dozen, they may be traumatic enough to stimulate great art — so keep on breaking up, all you great artists, and go on behaving like male chauvinist pigs (if you're male) or like victims of male chauvinist pigs (if you're female).
Much to Beck's honour, though, his breakup album is fairly chivalrous. Legend has it that he caught his fiancée cheating on him with another musician, and if so, it was fairly lucky for her that her fiancé was not a Bob Dylan or a Lindsey Buckingham: Beck's «breakup album» does not put any explicit or implicit blame on anybody. In fact, for a breakup album, there are surprisingly few oppositions of «me» and «you» — most of the time it's just about «me» and the state of total misery that the «me» is experiencing. One has to watch the lyrics very closely to even understand that this is an actual breakup album. Actually, «misery» is not even the right word — «emotional numbness» is more like it, or maybe «deep-frozen soul»: Beck's intent here is to convey the feeling of confused stun and sensual paralysis that he must have undergone, and, as far as my own sensory receptors tell me, the intent is carried out fine.
For hardcore fans of Beck's «party face», the release of Sea Change, his bleakest, moodiest, and most genuinely serious record to that point, must have been like a bucket of ice-cold water, coming right on the heels of the non-stop-rave of Midnite Vultures. That did not prevent the album from selling almost as well — and, of course, the critical press had a gala feast, because there's nothing like a Serious Breakup Album to give the professionally paid reviewer an easy subject to knock off a few paragraphs or pages. There were also murmurs, though, in some circles, that Beck had exceeded his artistic limitations — that «Beck the goof» was a far more valid proposition altogether than «Beck the introspective singer-songwriter», that he lacked the proper clout, talent, lyrical gift, melodic feel, etc., for this side of the business. Both of these schools of thought still persist to the current day — so whose side should we be on?
My answer would be fairly simple. The songs, as such, that Beck wrote for the occasion, seem relatively pedestrian to me. Had they been issued as a collection of acoustic demos (the way they actually were recorded by Beck originally), Sea Change would probably end up deadly dull and ultimately quite inadequate to its purpose. However, the collective weight of Beck's output to that point showed well enough that putting together basic chord sequences was never a forte of Mr. Hansen — he usually preferred to «borrow» these sequences from somewhere else and then focus exclusively on the form in which they were presented, together with one or more other people whose presence in the studio was vital. So why would Sea Change be an exception?
The plain truth is that Sea Change is not an album by Beck Hansen, the aspiring «anti-folk» artist. It is an album by «Beck», a revolving-door-style conglomeration that, for the occasion, consisted of such primary members as Beck Hansen — the songwriter and vocalist; Nigel Godrich — the engineer, mixer, and producer; and David Campbell — string arranger and conductor, whose credits run the unbelievable gamut from Carole King's Tapestry to Aerosmith's ʽI Don't Want To Miss A Thingʼ (people who can cause either great good or great evil on a whim are so fascinating, don't you agree?). Oh, and, for that matter, David Campbell is also Beck Hansen's father, but we will try to ignore that fact, lest unhealthy suspicions of nepotism darken our feelings.
Let us now take a closer look at one of the album's best numbers — ʽPaper Tigerʼ. As an «original song», it does not even begin to make the grade, resting on standard blues patterns (you can probably name half a dozen songs from J. J. Cale alone that ride the same chords). Where it does make the grade is its dynamics — the awesome tension build-up that begins from the very first second. The song starts out with Beck's dark-shaded singing, accompanied by the rhythm section only, with a very prominent bass walk. At 0:29, the electric guitar marks its grand entry with a jarring siren wail, and ten seconds later, it is joined by incoming strings. From then on, nothing really matters — not the basic sequence, not the monotonous rhythm, not even Beck's grumble, all the way to the final "there's no road back to you" — nothing but the incredible «organized freedom» with which Smokey Hormel's guitar and Campbell's strings roam all over that territory. This ain't Hollywood, this ain't the Chicago Blues Festival. This is free-feeling, unpredictable, but also completely accessible instrumental work that makes me jaw drop, and then pick up again with each new swoop of those strings.
Godrich's and Campbell's ideas for the use of orchestration on this album have been frequently compared to Paul Buckmaster's work for classic era Elton John, and there are some clear parallels, but on ʽPaper Tigerʼ and several other works the influences go deeper — all the way to 1967, I'd say, and the psychedelic use of strings on Beatles albums: ʽWithin You Without Youʼ, in particular, and ʽI Am The Walrusʼ (in fact, I'd be very much surprised if the rising string pattern in the coda of ʽLonesome Tearsʼ were not a direct carryover from the ʽWalrusʼ coda — only on ʽWalrusʼ, the strings were being used to blow your mind, while here they are rather used to overwhelm your mind, and yes, there is a real difference). Other analogies are possible as well, but the common invariant is always the same — these are anything but «generic» arrangements. These here strings have living voices, and they want you to hear them. I think I do.
And it's not all about the strings, either. ʽGolden Ageʼ, opening the album, has no strings — only guitars and keyboards. But Godrich puts them at such a distance from Beck's voice, and uses such effects, that it genuinely sounds as if the man is singing to you out of a huge dungeon pit, where he has placed himself in his desperation: the voice being picked up by the wind, thrown and thrashed about the pit walls, and finally reaching the listener at the intersection of several different air currents. Radiohead fans forgive me — but I have never once experienced this sort of effect while listening to OK Computer, not even at top volume on headphones. And consequently, Beck's "these days I barely get by, I don't even try", which, under different circumstances, might have sounded self-pitying and pretentious, achieves maximum effect — not so much self-pity as mere constatation of the fact, cast to the thousand winds, giving us a man overwhelmed by fate, feeling like a bit player, caught up against his will in some impossible-to-understand scenario and not finding the strength to fight it.
This is just two songs, but everything on here works, one way or another. Even the most monotonous, static, near-ambient tracks like ʽRound The Bendʼ — where Beck's mode of singing is (probably quite intentionally) emulating the late Nick Drake — are redeemed by powerful «deep sea» orchestration, with waves of violins and cellos carrying, rather than drowning out, Beck and his minimalistic acoustic picking. But ʽRound The Bendʼ is not typical of the record: most of the songs are actual «songs» rather than sonic panoramas — it's just that their dynamics usually takes time to unwrap. ʽSunday Sunʼ, for instance, starts out as a keyboard-and-sitar-driven art-pop song, then finishes with a noisy crash for a coda — the loudest, most abrazing moment on the entire album, yet such is its overall effect that you might not even notice all the rucus, so smoothly it is integrated in the overall calm melancholic grandeur of the song and the entire record.
If Sea Change is not Beck's «masterpiece», it is only because there are too many different Becks out there to choose just one, not to mention all the different «Beck configurations» (on this one here, the honor belongs to Godrich and Beck Sr. as much as Beck Jr.). But as far as breakup albums go — and just imagine how many of them there have been in the last fifty years — this one not only sets out a unique goal to be conquered, but also does conquer it. Did the man really feel that sort of emotional numbness upon being dumped? Is he that sensitive? Could he really have written "I'm mixing business with leather, Christmas with Heather" one day and then "these days I barely get by..." the next one? None of that, of course, is important. What is important is how the music makes you feel — and, on my part, Sea Change makes me feel... well, let's call it «cold and drunk», or something like that. But not drunk enough to be unable to hold those thumbs up for one of the decade's greatest artistic successes.
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