The early 00’s found Beck Hansen firmly established in his musical career both critically and commercially. His breakthrough album 1993’s Mellow Gold contained the evergreen hit Loser. He went further in cementing his career aspirations with the mind-bending Odelay. He displayed his versatility on his stripped down funk-infused Mutations along with the follow-up Midnight Vultures. It seemed Beck was on a personal winning streak and his life had turned a corner; everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Beck with 2002’s Sea Change took what some considered a sudden departure from his trademark ironic lyrics, sampling and experimentation. Rather than this departure turning off critics and longtime fans he was able to produce what many consider one of his most respected releases.
Beck has often been described as one of the most creatively idiosyncratic performers of the decade. Renown for his off-kilter musical collages, where oblique and ironic lyrics merged with postmodern arrangements incorporating samples, drum machines, sound effects, megaphones and famously two turntables and a microphone. Beck is in many ways music central casting’s ultimate underdog. The guy with a weird home life that spanned growing up around the declining low rent neighbourhoods in LA to Midwestern church influences in Kansas to exposure to the Avant-garde art movement in Europe. It was while in Europe that Beck became familiar with his maternal grandfather Al Hansen, whose last name he took for his own. Al Hansen was a visual collage artist and pioneer of the avant-garde Fluxus movement. All of these various surroundings gave Beck the background to speak with authority in his music no matter the genre.
Beck has always hated the slacker generation label he was bestowed with at the beginning of his career, as he was not an assured rise to rock stardom and he certainly paid his dues. Discussing the label he has stated, “Slacker my ass. I mean I never had any slack, I was working a $4.00 an hour job just to stay alive. The slacker stuff is for people who have time to be depressed about everything.” During the years prior to and during his struggle to establish his music career, Beck was at times homeless as he learned his trade. He performed anywhere and everywhere. Those chances let him hone his skills and ear; he soon displayed an ability to adlib lyrics at a drop of a hat. By 1993 things were so dire Beck was living in a rat-infested shed near an LA alleyway. Thankfully in 1994 Mellow Gold, his official debut was released and Loser took off. The rest, as they say, is history.
Advance the story of 2002, Beck’s career was zipping along and the dire days seemed behind him. The other shoe dropped when Beck caught his fiancée and partner of nine years cheating on him with another musician. After their breakup, Beck lapsed into a period of melancholy and introspection during which he wrote the bleak acoustic songs that would later make up Sea Change. Beck did not rush to record these songs feeling they were more like a cathartic therapy exercise than anything that would make a worthy release. Beck did not want to focus on his personal life and these songs were deeply personal. As he has stated, “I was not ready to strew my baggage across the public lobby.” He eventually came to the decision that the songs were worthy of release and spoke to a common experience and were not as self-indulgent as he feared.
In many ways, Sea Change is Beck at his most approachable and vulnerable. The release provided a glimpse behind the perceived persona of a wunderkind eccentric. The themes of the release are heartbreak, desolation, solitude and loneliness. Here on display was a heartbroken individual using the medium he worked in to help master and express his pain. Most of the songs on Sea Change were written in the week after his breakup. Prior records were more exhilarating than touching, on Sea Change that all alter with all of Beck’s gifts being melted down to produce pure evocative emotion.
Beck had originally intended to record the album in late 2001 but 9/11 terrorist attacks made it hard to line people up for the production. Beck had been working with producer Dan Nakamura prior to the entrance of his frequent collaborator Producer Nigel Godrich. Nothing from the earlier sessions made it onto the album. Arriving at the legendary Ocean Way Studio in CA, Beck along with Godrich decided to try for one song a day approach. It didn’t quite work taking about two days per song but the album was recorded in a little over three weeks. To catch the intimacy things were recorded quickly and spontaneously. Because they had not booked enough studio time, Godrich and Beck ended up sneaking into Ocean Way on weekends while Joni Mitchell was working on her album on weekdays to apply the finishing touches to the release. Joining Beck in the studio were the usual suspects; Roger Joseph Manning Jr on keyboards, Justin Meldal-Johnsen on Bass and Joey Waronker on drums. Halfway through the sessions, Waronker had to leave due to prior commitments and James Gadsen filled in till the release was completed. Also on the release were multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, Cellist Suzie Katayama and guitarists Smokey Hormel and Jason Falkner.
Upon hearing the release the record company braced retailers for the record by telling them not to expect much radio backing but that Beck’s reputation and critical acclaim would offset Beck’s veer into an uncommercial sound. The label’s apprehension was proven wrong and Sea Change became a popular critical and commercial favourite. The album would go to #8 on Billboard, be certified gold by RIAA in 2005 and would become one of his most popular recordings. Sea Change would rank in Rolling Stone’s list of top 500 greatest albums of all time and be described by the magazine as “ an impeccable album of truth and light from the end of love.” It was also named by Rolling Stone as the Best Album of the Year in 2002 and charted #20 in the UK.
Sea Change is an album which features a full band but feels like Beck is alone on the stage. The release starts off with The Golden Age an acoustic arrangement that is fragile and haunting and sets the tone for the album. The song signalled that the release would be a departure from anything Beck had done before. On the track, Beck’s voice is enthralling and draws the listener into the visions he is singing about. It is bittersweet and bleakly beautiful, “You gotta drive all night to feel like your ok... These are days I barely get by, I don’t even try.” Beck had travelled a long way from Where it’s At and was even more mesmerizing. With its Mellow Gold funky accompaniment, Paper Tiger at first would fool the listener into thinking The Golden Age was a one-off. But just below the surface was the heartbreak and questioning that Beck had running through his mind. It has a definite trippy vibe and enough special Beck signatures to make it his own. Again he questions and sees things from the perspective of his broken heart likened to a broken diamond and ponders if things would get better after all the pain he was experiencing.
One of the best tracks on the album is Guess I’m Doing Fine, despite all of its ironies it fully displayed Beck’s pain. Few songs could ever convey the heartbreak of a “done and dusted” broken relationship like this song. Found here are the things we tell ourselves and others to get through trauma till we are truly recovered. Beck points out all the things that should snap him out of his funk but realizes that nothing really helps until he can put it all behind him and move on. The chorus is the real killer; “its only lies that I’m living, it only tears that I’m crying, it’s only you that I am losing, guess I’m doing fine.” Gorgeous guitars and Beck’s evocative singing nail this song. Kudos go to Godrich’s skilled production.
Lonesome Tears is Beck’s attempt to rise above his heartbreak. He questions in the lyrics why love goes wrong, and why things never seem to work out. “How can this love ever turning never turn its eye on me, could this love ever changing never change the way I feel?” The song is dramatic and the beautiful strings send the song on its way with Beck’s intimate vocal delivery being the featured instrument of the track. Lost Cause is another track that just elevated this release to genius level. In the song, Beck performs a sort of volte-face stopping for a moment to realize the other person in the relationship had some responsibilities for its failure. Beck realizes that the person is not who he thought they were and is seeing them clearly for the first time. ‘Baby you’re a lost, baby you’re a lost cause … I’m tired of fighting for a lost cause.” The song is pretty bitter but has a lighter and brighter accompaniment.
It is at this point that Beck somewhat head fakes the listener into thinking he has taken a turn towards recovery. End of the Day, however, is a song that mourns love turning to hate, the games that get played and the tendency for the victim to blame themselves for crimes others perpetuate. In each person’s head they know cheating and taking advantage of someone in a relationship goes on, but no one thinks it will happen to them. It is here Beck wonders how he ended up under the bus when he should have seen it all coming. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, but it still kills me like it did before.” The melancholy of Beck’s vocal conveys the song perfectly. The accompaniment is perfect as it reflects that feeling without overwhelming the fragile emotions of the vocal and lyrics. Godrich’s deft production again is amazing showing off his abilities at the soundboard. All In Your Mind is the third song of the release that is a spectacular pillar supporting the album. Here it truly feels as if you and Beck are in a room together as honeyed strings break into a full accompaniment. The track points out the things that prevent you from doing what you want, fear, sadness and regret, also the inability to let others help. “Well it’s all in your mind, and I want to be your good friend.” This song ebbs and flows to an amazing climax. It is heartfelt and earnest making for a spectacular song.
The song Round the Bend goes for a macro outlook and is an introspective song about the state of mankind. The track is looking outward rather than being as centred on Beck. It also calls out how wrong it is not to appreciate what you have and wasting it. “We don’t have to worry life goes where it does…people pushing harder up against themselves… round the bend.” There is a dramatic darker feel to this song with its folksy ethereal aura as it unspools over an atmospheric soundscape. Another song that takes place on an expansive soundscape is Already Dead. It is a track where Beck realizes that there is nothing salvageable in his ruined romantic relationship. The song also is about coming to grips with the sadness that entails. “Already dead to me now cos it feels like I’m watching something die.” The country flare of the accompaniment keeps the song from getting too maudlin yet conveys all the emotions Beck needed to express. Sunday Sun moves back into a more recognizable Beck tune. It is more in keeping with his off the cuff poetry. This is another song where the atmospheric effect produces drama and lifts the track. It is a majestic sunlit song that ends with a glorious Beck like cacophony of sound.
In an album filled with beautiful songs, Little One is a lullaby of encouragement. It is in parts trippy and stylishly deranged as only Beck can create but retains this chorus of encouragement, “Little one just a little way today all of the dreams are waking.” This song also provided the title for the album. “In a sea change nothing is safe, strange waves push us every way in a stolen boat we float away.” The song is hope over adversity. The album closes with Side of the Road Beck ends this journey through heartbreak having learned a few things about love and life. “Till the ugly truth showed me what it did… what a friend could tell me now.” He seems in this song to dust himself off and head out the door out into the world a wiser person. Figuratively his armour is back in place as he confronts his heartbreak one more time before he moves on again. The song has a great blues/country vibe.
Sea Change presents Beck as moving beyond the youthful slacker eccentric he was always portrayed as in the past. Beck the eternal post-adolescent moves on to adulthood. The album is confessional but never seat squirmingly embarrassing. As a listener, you could find common ground with his pain and also find yourself cheering him on to successfully coming out the other side of his sadness. Sea Change is a meditation on romantic loss. Beck seemed to find he had to either cathartically empty himself of the pain or succumb.
In so many ways Beck showed amazing bravery and guts to display this side of himself. He certainly deserved the rewards for that bravery. The album was a risk in its departure from the familiar for Beck but it is by far one of his masterworks. Prior to this album, he was happy to be the guy behind the curtain of his sounds. With Sea Change he allowed us to get close as he sings his heart. Beck would move on from this album to again produce albums that blended and touched upon numerous genres and Beck signatures; encompassing Folk, Funk, Soul, Hip Hop, Alternative, Country and Psychedelic. He would also mend his broken heart by meeting his now wife and have children so the story ends happily. Most recently Beck produced his Grammy Award-winning album Morning Phase in 2014, which many fans and critics have stated harkens to Sea Change sonically. Beck is ever the musical troubadour on his very individualistic musical trail, one can hardly wait for what comes next, but Sea Change is certainly a masterwork milestone on his journey.