In 1994, Beck Hansen released his first major-label album. He called it Mellow Gold, and we all laughed at the irony: slacker caricature and coffeehouse hip-hop billed like a K-tel makeout platter. But Sea Change, his eighth album, is the real thing — a perfect treasure of soft, spangled woe sung with a heavy open heart.
It’s the best album Beck has ever made, and it sounds like he’s paid dearly for the achievement. He reportedly wrote these twelve wine-dark songs after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. Significantly, two of Beck’s finest songs of the last decade were also pristine love-sucks blues: “Asshole,” on his ’94 garage-folk detour, One Foot in the Grave, and the raga moan “Nobody’s Fault but My Own,” on 1998’s Mutations. Sea Change, gleaming with twang and heartbroken strings, is an entire album of spectacular suffering.
This kind of candor does not come easily even to great record makers, and Beck, one of our sharpest, has never had much cause for such direct reflection. The satirical impatience and throbbing collage of his most commercial work — Mellow Gold, 1996’s Odelay, the ’99 pillow-talk pastiche Midnite Vultures — has always been more exhilarating than touching, a triumph of guarded magnificence. But you can clearly hear Beck banging between bravado and paralysis all over Sea Change. He gives his departing other a grand send-off at the start of the album, in “The Golden Age” (“Put your hands on the wheel/Let the golden age begin”), then fills the rest of the song with his own fear of going nowhere fast: “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try.” Compared to other titles here, such as “Lost Cause” and “Already Dead,” “Guess I’m Doing Fine” is happy talk. In fact, Beck is doing anything but; the low, slow way he sings on his way to the song’s punch line — “It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine” — is a powerful admission of failure.
The clarity of his crisis has a lot to do with the naked strength of Beck’s singing. For someone who started out as a teenage folk hobo — just voice and strum — Beck has rarely walked this far out in front of the music on his own records. And considering his eternal-high-school looks, he possesses a surprisingly manly tenor, a clean, deep instrument of lust and worry. It fills the big spaces in Nigel Godrich’s haunted production — the backward-tape buzz in “Lost Cause”; the desert-Bach air of the keyboards in “Nothing I Haven’t Seen” — with the combined pathos of Nick Drake, the solo, freaked-out Syd Barrett and the John Lennon of Plastic Ono Band. When Beck and Godrich pour on the Indo-Beatles chaos in “Sunday Sun” — ghostly pounding piano and not-so-unison guitar; a meltdown coda of drums and distortion — you can still hear Beck’s resignation and unsteady resurrection inside the song.
The Drake and Barrett comparisons are not idle flattery. Just as Mutations was Beck’s homage to Tropicalia — Brazil’s late-1960s revolution in art, sound and romanticism — Sea Change suggests that Beck has been studying the British early-1970s school of psychedelic-comedown melancholy. The coal-gray cry of string arrangements by Beck’s father, David Campbell, in “Lonesome Tears” and “Round the Bend” recall Robert Kirby’s exquisite orchestrations on Drake’s 1969 album Five Leaves Left. Godrich, who as a producer and engineer helped put the Pink Floyd in Radiohead, shows the same flair here for shadows and suspense. Beck made this record with a full band, including guitarist Smokey Hormel, keyboard player Roger Manning and drummer Joey Waronker. Yet on every song, it sounds like Beck is the only one in the room, alone with his questions and stumped for answers.
When Beck recently performed at New York’s Lincoln Center, he mixed some of these new songs with breathtaking covers of “No Expectations,” by the Rolling Stones,” Big Star’s “Kangaroo,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park” and “Sunday Morning,” by the Velvet Underground. It was a perfect fit — songs about commitment and loss, written and sung by the wounded. Beck didn’t play any Dylan, but he didn’t have to. As a young folk singer at the turn of the Nineties, Beck set out to be his own Dylan. With Sea Change, he has made it the hard way, creating an impeccable album of truth and light from the end of love. This is his Blood on the Tracks.