Let the Golden Age Begin: Beck’s Sea Change at 20

How a broken-hearted Mr. Hansen expressed himself pastorally

Beck 2002 press photo (Image: DGC)

By 2002, Beck had been a man of many guises, starting with the laconic fellow who mixed stoner folk with hip-hop on Mellow Gold.

That album yielded “Loser”, an indelible slacker anthem and surprise hit that wouldn’t have surprised a lot of folks if it had led to “Where Are They Now?” stories years later.

Two years and a producer change partway through recording later, the sample-happy, everything-but-the-kitchen sink hipster of Odelay arrived. Full of a constant state of exploration and its share of alternative earworms, it went double platinum. Indeed, Beck wasn’t going to be joining the likes of Lou Bega and Marcy Playground in One Hit Wonderland.

Beck shifted into the retrenching craftsman of 1998’s Mutations and the pastiche-loving hip-hop and soul prankster of dubious sincerity in the following year’s Midnite Vultures.

Nobody knew what was coming from him next, only that his track record indicated it would be something different than its predecessor.

When Sea Change arrived 20 years ago this past weekend, listeners got their first look at the latest iteration– Beck with a broken heart.

Beck Sea Change, DGC 2002

After a nine-year relationship with his fiancée Leigh Limon came to an end in 2000, Beck channeled his emotions into song. He promptly shelved the material he’d written, feeling it was too personal. Whether it was his artistic instincts or enough time had passed since the breakup, he decided there was enough universality in what he’d written that he could be less guarded than usual.

He went back to Nigel Godrich, who’d produced Mutations. The album started with the intent of being in that vein. But that quickly changed as Sea Change became lusher (with string arrangements by Beck’s father David Campbell) with more of a middle of the night in Laurel Canyon vibe.

Odelay was a brilliant, fun album, but one could never say it was deeply personal. Seven years later, this was a whole new Beck.

Gone were lyrics like “Silver foxes looking for romance/In their chainsmoke Kansas flashdance ass-pants”, replaced by a much more direct creator. It was a songwriting perspective he’d danced around before, but felt didn’t fit prior albums. This was a creative challenge he took to his broken heart, to avoid the ironic wordplay and stick to emotions.

His voice practically echoes through the canyons on “The Golden Age”. The guitars gently strum. Backing vocals drift in as do the hints of noise that suggest he was familiar with Godrich’s work on Radiohead’s OK Computer.

“Guess I’m Doing Fine” offers weary resignation with a lovely country rock flavor through the alone-at-3-AM haze.

 

VIDEO: Beck “Lost Cause”

“Lost Cause” ditches the echo and pedal steel for sad low-key pop that’s either self-recrimination or tired kiss-off, depending on how it hits you.

The strings carry “Lonesome Tears”, along with the emotional chorus. There’s a warmth to the sadness here, showing how Sea Change avoided the pitfall of moroseness for its own sake. Even if he wasn’t in the best place emotionally in writing it, he was comfortably bummed.

The album is too well-crafted and relatable to be a slog. Yet it also wasn’t obsessively labored over, recorded in just three weeks.

It also doesn’t hurt that Beck, as focused as he was, kept things varied. Take the psycheledic touches of “Sunday Sun” and “Little One”, the former more British and the latter more immediate.

“Paper Tiger” starts off as a downbeat, more held-together version of his early material, only to have soaring strings blow their way through, enabling the song to float easily along its groove.

“Lonesome Tears” pulls a similar trick in service of a sticky, pained chorus. The man who tossed off asides like “get crazy with the Cheese Wiz” less than a decade earlier had clearly been going through some things.

 

VIDEO: Beck “The Golden Age”

a”End of the Day” channels 70s singer-songwriter vibes. And speaking of ’70s singer-songwriters, “Round the Bend”, one of Sea Change’s highlights, shows that Beck clearly has an affection for Nick Drake. Beautifully orchestral, it feels like it belongs over a dialogue-free scene with the romantically bereft protagonist just before the third act kicks in.

“Side of the Road” is the low-key coda, in which the resignation has fully taken hold.

“Ship in a Bottle”, sadly, didn’t make the cut, appearing on the Japanese release of the album and on a later reissue. It’s a lovely pop tune, perhaps left off because it was just a touch more immediate. Or perhaps it was felt the album would be too long with it.

The creative experience of making the melancholy masterpiece Sea Change was a positive one for Beck, who wanted to continue in that style for his next album, which would have been a first.

I say “would have been” because a thief who never got caught had other ideas. Beck had written about 35 songs post-Sea Change. He kept the tapes in a suitcase, which was stolen backstage during a solo show in Washington D.C. and never found.

“I was so disheartened by that, and felt bereft of these two years of songwriting that I had done,” he told Pitchfork in 2011. “Those were songs I worked particularly hard on, and I felt like I really had something with them. I could remember the music to about three or four of them, and a couple lines here or there, but most of them were just on those tapes. They were fairly complex songs, and much more involved, technically, on the guitar, than anything I’d done. So, for a year after that, I didn’t write any songs.”

Sea Change alternate cover art (Image: DGC)

Instead, he went back to style shifting, reuniting with Odelay producers the Dust Brothers to finish an album they’d started back then, which became 2004’s Guero.

It took until 2014 for him to revisit where he’d gone on Sea Change. Morning Phase was a reunion of nearly all of its predecessors’ contributors, with the exception of Godrich, as Beck self-produced it. While not written after a breakup (he was a married father at the time), it mined similar territory. If it feels at times like Sea Change Jr. (albeit with fewer strings), it’s still well-crafted and leavens the heartbreak with a greater dose of hope. 

Sea Change still connects the deepest of any of his excursions into this territory. It’s a beautiful downer that showed just how engaging Beck could remain when the mask dropped.

 

 

 

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