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Beck’s ‘Sea Change’ Turns 20

Beck released some sad songs in the ’90s, but he jealously kept his personal life outside of his lyrics, opting instead for the poetic and absurd. Even a self-defeating ballad like Mutations highlight “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” is vague enough to mean just about anything. Now, in an effort to exorcise his demons and connect with a world full of cheated juices, he bared his soul without a trace of irony. Such genuine sadness was key to the album’s appeal. I’m not sure the effect would have held if Beck had ever stopped laughing at himself. Instead of, Sea change lives in a light-hearted free space, an emotional state that is unhealthy to sustain in the long run, but that often has to be endured in the wake of a split in order to properly mourn what has been lost. It is the sound of a fog that will eventually lift, even if it seems eternal in the moment. “Nowadays I barely make it”, he complains about “The Golden Age”, while his band evokes the feeling of a drive to nowhere. “I’m not even trying.”

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Beck turned to a team of trusted collaborators to translate his dejection into a vibrant world of sound. Crucially, he backed up with Mutations producer Nigel Godrich, whose work with Radiohead had demonstrated his skills in bleak emotional territory. (Songs like “Paper Tiger,” with its subtly funky bass groove and frolicking orchestral strings, seemed like the harbinger of Radiohead’s A moon-shaped swimming pool.) Beck also recruited his father, the composer and arranger David Campbell, to smear these songs in symphonic splendor, like clouds forming into hallucinatory shapes at sunset. His bandmates, all seasoned pros, kept the music moving and breathing, even when weighed down by the weight of the world; drummers Joey Waronker and James Gadson, in particular, play with such color and spunk that sometimes, against all odds, I burst into a smile when I encounter their tumbling fillings.

There is a consistent vibe and texture to the track listing, a luscious, impressionistic, slightly psychedelic form of dejected chamber pop that makes Beck’s turmoil cinematic at every turn. But Sea change is surprisingly diverse within those parameters. There are country rockers on which Smokey Hormel’s guitar takes on the weeping quality of pedal steel against a wash of synths, Wurlitzer and Clavinet, sometimes topped off with a high lone harmonica. “It’s All In Your Mind”, originally a barebones indie pop tune from 1994 One foot in the grave, takes on the soft suppleness of the Velvet Underground book of the same name. “Round The Bend” turns the orchestra pit into a pit of despair. With four separate musicians playing the central piano line, “Sunday Sun” shimmers to a grand chorus and boisterous climax, while the baroque power pop of “Little One” is a link in the chain between Big Star and Grizzly Bear. “Side Of The Road” closes the album with loosely unraveling country blues, as if the band stretches out to bed and Beck finally puts his grief to rest.

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Across the board, these songs highlight Beck’s baritone as a powerful instrument in its own right. Amid the twinkling beauty of “Lost Cause”, it’s meek yet robust, sounding tender and tired on lines like “I’m tired of fighting/Fighting for a lost cause.” He softens every word on the sliding “End Of The Day” as he casually confesses his pain: “Had to pretend I didn’t even care / But I did so I was stranded standing there.” Elsewhere, he really lets it rip, like the Beast in his castle that yearns for Belle with an angry roar. If you’re inclined to write off Beck’s performance here as a caricature of exaggerated self-pity, there’s ammunition for your argument: ‘Push my face up against the window/To see how hot it is inside’, for example. But there is real pathos in Beck’s performance. He plays with the strengths of those impeccable arrangements and breathes life into sombre laments that would otherwise fail.

For his tour in support of Sea changeBeck hired the Flaming Lips, who came out of their own moody metamorphosis Yoshimi fights the pink robots, as his backing band. While there’s a lot of pain in the Lips’ music, it was an odd fit given Wayne Coyne’s goofball ringmaster stage persona, and the band didn’t come close to the greatness of their studio counterparts. The late crowd pullers “Where It’s At” and “Devils Haircut” couldn’t match the mostly restrained setlist. I found myself wishing I was on the other side of town to watch my local soccer team win their first trophy. But Sea change the album stayed with me. Two decades later, it hasn’t let go.

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Despite some failures along the way, Beck released a lot of good to great music in the 21st century, becoming a surprise Album Of The Year winner at the Grammys with 2014’s Morning phasea happy sequel to Sea change that proves that even the worst heartbreak can eventually evaporate. His work in the mid-1990s was truly groundbreaking. But for me, Beck peaked around the turn of the millennium with that incongruous combination of Midnite Vultures and Sea change. The first is the epitome of staggering ridiculousness, an indulgent, ecstatic fantasy that represents Beck at its most infectious. You might write the latter off as the cynical pivot of an eclectic alternative pioneer in so-called adulthood, like a comedian starring in a prestige drama to win respect for the industry. But Sea change is too serious to be read as anything but a sincere expression of Beck’s broken heart, translated into music so flawless that it ultimately evokes joy. I can’t think of a more spectacular way to wallow.

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