A sea change, the dictionary says, is a “notable or unexpected transformation.” History’s best-known sea change is described in song by the captive sprite Ariel in The Tempest, who gives the term connotations of death by drowning and calcification. It isn’t clear that 32-year-old Beck Hansen had her elegy in mind when he titled his fifth major-label release Sea Change, but it sure fits. Dude, those are so pearls that were his eyes. While one of Beck’s strengths is his ability to transform unexpectedly—often in mid-song—he’s also had a less obvious talent for disguising a bright side in dark clothes. But that was then. Even the somber mood of 1998’s Mutations doesn’t match the disconsolate Sea Change, in which Beck clothes his dark side in black.
In 1994, Beck burst into fame with the mordantly defiant “Loser,” whose rise to the top ten was bisected by Kurt Cobain’s suicide. “Loser” became an anthem not for slackers, as the Internet boom would soon prove, but for covertly ambitious apparent fuckups like Beck himself. They looked to the angel-faced Californian to provide new hope for alt-rock because the song’s message proved the opposite of Cobain’s, if taken to heart. Had “Loser” been a Nirvana track true to their leader’s fate, the chorus would have been inverted: not “I’m a loser, baby/So why don’t you kill me?” but “I’m a winner, baby/So why don’t I kill myself?” Too disturbed by Cobain’s message that success wasn’t worth it, but still too cool for a straightforward antidote like hope, audiences warmed to the new kid’s sophisticated insincerity. Perhaps they subliminally responded to the lines “I’m a driver/I’m a winner/Things are gonna change I can feel it,” buried in its coda, among evocative absurdities like “Get crazy with the Cheez Whiz.” “Loser,” and the debut album it appears on, Mellow Gold, remain among the best introductions to Beck’s scavenger aesthetic, successfully reconciling his equal affections for Leadbelly’s blues, Run-D.M.C.’s irreverent rap, Dylan’s imagery, and carefully controlled tomfoolery. The word collage frequently rears up as a descriptor of Beck’s music, but despite his waify, WASP-y looks, Beck is as much of a collage as his output—technically, maybe more. One of his grandfathers was a Presbyterian minister, the other Fluxus artist Al Hansen, whose cut-and-paste images of the female form lend Beck some of his art-world cred and prove that his pastiche jones is in the blood. Maternal grandma was an actress and gangster’s moll, Dad a bluegrass musician and string arranger. More art-world heritage came from Mom, Bibbe Hansen, a Jewish Warhol superstar who grafted her impoverished single-parent family to L.A., somewhere between a Latino neighborhood and a Korean one and fed her children on eclecticism. Beck responded to his centerless environment by fashioning an identity based on what excited him, ignoring his supposed limitations. He’s at his best while walking the edge between so-called cultural appropriation and creative misreading. If genres, like races, keep people apart, Beck means to erase such boundaries—especially if he can make a fool of himself in the process.
But perhaps if those boundaries didn’t exist, he might feel less of a need to take frequent breaks from his soul-inspired hipster personae and express his (less charming) inner lonesome cowboy. On Sea Change, the about-face is so abrupt that you might feel concerned for his personal well-being. What awful experience could make him drop all that delicious pretense and cry in his Corona? Does the credit go to 2002’s most influential artist in rock, Osama bin Laden, who isn’t even done patting himself on the back for the Springsteen record? Hints of 9-11 do crop up here and there, in a couple of lines from “Paper Tiger”—”No more ashes to ashes/No more cinders from the sky.” But what really seems to be making Beck miserable is not the collapse of the towers but the explosion of his love life, specifically his breakup with designer Leigh Limon, with whom he made the long strange journey from zero to hero, and who also served as his stylist.
Brief flashes of star-dating ensued—Winona Ryder, Gina Gershon—but Sea Change‘s alt-country-inflected gloom suggests a steadfast refusal to move on. And if Beck blames the pressures of fame for the split, perhaps it’s natural that his next move should play against his strengths—with a faint whiff of career suicide. It almost sounds like he’s singing his old hit the way Cobain would have. He once described Mutations, a supposedly anomalous set of cabaret-ish tunes, as “quiet, a record that my girlfriend would listen to.” Sea Change has the same pace, with less obvious melodies, and less inventiveness. In reuniting with Nigel Godrich, who also produced that earlier album, perhaps he means to regain Leigh’s attention, pining for the last artistic word.
Sadly, it sounds as if he’d rather engage her pity than eulogize the relationship with clear if wet eyes, or lament the precarious dance between love and loss. For all its apparent misery, Mutations celebrated the hope of the hopeless, the way “Loser” did, and never at the expense of great tunes or wordplay. It takes a real optimist to “harness dead horses” or imagine “a desolate wind that turns shit to gold,” the way Beck did on Mutations. At that point, he could see the stars from the gutter.
On Sea Change, however, we find poor Beck lying face down, full of emptiness. “The sun don’t shine/Even when it’s day,” he laments on the album opener, “The Golden Age,” an affectless description of a night ride through Death Valley, billowed by the ambience of a David Lynch soundtrack. “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” two tracks later, further reveals his philosophy of despair: “I just hold onto nothing/To see how long nothing lasts.” After that, he boosts the chorus of the grunge-y power ballad “Lonesome Tears” with a melodramatic, almost campy string arrangement. You can eke some pleasure from the haunting and pretty mood the album establishes, but soon “Time wears away/All the pleasures of the day,” as he warbles numbly through “Already Dead.” Still, the jaunty acoustic plucking of “Lost Cause” seems to deny its forlorn chorus, “Baby I’m lost/Baby I’m a lost cause,” and “Round the Bend” is a remarkably haunting dirge, a prime candidate for the “Gloomy Sunday” of modern rock. (See phespirit.info/gloomysunday/index.htm.)
If you haven’t already noticed from those song titles, the most disappointing aspect of this record is that Beck has fallen into the trap of confusing earnestly repeated clichés for personal lyrics. He does it so often that you hope it’s an ironic gesture at first. It ain’t. When he sings, “It’s only lies that I’m living/It’s only tears that I’m crying,” he could be any of those generic sensitive-guy rockers with a Prince Valiant perm and a stack of Pearl Jam bootlegs. On some tracks, he even pushes his voice toward the deep muscular wail that Seattle made famous, while aping the chromatic choruses of the early ’90s. Maybe it just feels tired because These Troubled Times call so loudly for something less indulgent. If you can push all of 2002’s downers out of your mind and appreciate Sea Change for its ambience, you can perhaps shield yourself from its powerful fatalism. Listen too closely to this siren song, and those sea nymphs will pull you down full fathom five.