October 3, 2002

Both Sides of the Coin

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As I’ve grown older and more mature, so has Beck, and that’s refreshing. Starting as lo-fi loser mixing beats and loving the blues (One Foot in The Grave, Mellow Gold), moving on to party favorite (Odelay), never forgetting the stoner mellowness of his generation (Mutations), and even miraculously showing us how someone with such questionable dance moves could be sexy (Midnite Vultures) — Beck’s chameleon colors are many. Consistent through these transformations has been the most unsatisfying aspect of Beck. Namely, a defense shield was always raised, never allowing the listener to grasp a sense of Beck as a self. Personal insight was always masked by beatnik poems full of slapdash metaphors and vivid images crafted in striking yet ultimately unrevealing ways. The real Beck was always protected by his Beckness. Even on Mutations, his most “introspective” album, the closest he got to personal revelation was the vague “my love is a room of broken bottles and tangled webs/ the misers wind their minds/ like clocks that grind their gears.” Following a break-up with long-term girlfriend Lee, Beck finally shows his self on Sea Change. The person revealed is not upbeat; in fact he is quite miserable. “The Golden Age” opens the album with an acoustic guitar strumming chords remarkably similar to the Stones’ “Wild Horses.” A gentle pedal steel soothingly slides in to be joined by Beck’s voice, though it is not the familiar stoned-monotone of past; it is higher and much more emotive. A perfect song. The majestic “Paper Tiger” follows, consisting of a layered string arrangement, a drumbeat and Beck’s more typical monotone. The string arrangement is reminiscent of George Martin’s on the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” with an added psychedelic stroke. Strings are prevalent on Sea Change and are never mere ornamentation. With the deft hand of Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s George Martin) the string parts are quite expressive especially when paired with an acoustic guitar or a lone vocal track.

Lyrically, Sea Change is Beck’s strongest work. The metaphors are trenchant and beautiful. On the aforementioned “Paper Tiger” he captures the fragility of a relationship with “just like a paper tiger/ torn apart by idle hands.” Beck is finally comfortable enough to speak of “lonesome tears” (like his hero Hank Williams) and make the words carry so much pain and meaning that the reverberation of a clich