By: Eric Greenwood
Is it a coincidence that Sea Change is Beck's most maudlin album to date and he's now a full-blown Scientologist? Doubtful. Paying big bucks to get that alien off your back to reach OT level 7 or whatever must be trying for a sensitive soul like Beck's. I'm actually kind of disturbed that he has publicly embraced Scientology. Who in his right mind would want to join a cult that has lured such dolts as John Travolta, Jenna Elfman, and Kirstie Alley into its grasp? A "religion" whose leader supposedly uttered this farcical and ironic quote: "If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." Why, Beck, why?
Beck just always seemed above aligning himself with such a tacky faction of phonies. Money and fame must have twisted his perspective over time. But, I suppose, as long as he doesn't start singing about "Thetans" and starring in movies like Battlefield Earth, I can suspend my disbelief that he's not a completely hopeless freak. Sea Change actually makes my task easy, although, I've struggled with it for weeks. It's such a downer of an album that I couldn't latch onto anything at first. This is odd because usually the more depressing something is, the more I tend to like it. I think I was put off by the calculated drama of it all. Strings mixed with Nigel Godrich's lush production made it all seem a little too cookie-cutter.
I even forced myself to listen to it when I didn't want to. It stayed on my stereo for days straight because I was befuddled as to why nothing clicked. After such an effort without much reward, I set it aside. I picked up again today for the first time in weeks, and somehow every single song just made perfect sense to me. I don't know if it's some kind of Pavlovian response to my force-feeding of it in weeks previous, but I do know that I'm officially hooked. The dichotomy of Beck's bare bones strumming and Godrich's overblown histrionics actually makes quite a musical statement.
The real inspiration for Beck's album-length breakdown is clearly the old clichéd broken heart. But Beck communicates his sadness better than most through simple melodies and affecting lyrics. His deep voice resonates with gloom. There's not a hint of the soul-fried player from Midnite Vultures, nor the ramshackle beat-poet troubadour from Odelay. Not one cheery moment to be found. Every single song pushes further and further into Beck's despair. It's a resounding comedown for a musician whose lyrics typically read like a message scrawled on the back of a toilet paper roll you'd likely find discarded in a crack house in Detroit.
Beck sounds weary and worn out. Like he's been to hell and back. This is his Blood On The Tracks. While the first half of the record is certainly good, it's not until track seven ("It's All In Your Mind") that Sea Change elevates itself to a level where you just know it's going to go down as a classic. The downtrodden chord sequence is gorgeous as Beck's lovelorn voice genuinely aches as it intonates, "you're all scared stiff/a sick stolen gift." "Round The Bend" is even more devastating in its atmospheric, moody dejection. The strings swell behind Beck's subtle strumming and his voice floats beautifully over the soporific orchestration. Everything comes together flawlessly on the album's high point, "Already Dead." When Beck's voice hits the falsetto note at the end of the chorus, it just melts you to the core.
"Sunday Sun" lets a little light through in its semi-triumphant chorus but still maintains the bleak tone of the rest of the record. Beck's inward turn is not a new revelation. He's bared his skeletons before (One Foot In The Grave, Mutations) but never quite this honestly or sincerely. His songwriting chops are in peak form. Some of these choruses blow my mind how good they are and how naturally they flow. Beck should get dumped more often if will produce a goldmine like this. Sea Change is easily on par with the top records of the year. I just hope Beck doesn't get sucked too far into his new "religion" and turn into a bad punch line like John Travolta.