In 2012, the very idea of a breakup record has been rendered something of an anachronism. The divorce-album-as-discographical-inevitability is a phenomenon that historically occurs deep into an established artist’s career, and very few new artists are afforded that sort of shelf life anymore. But it wasn’t long ago that the notion of a mainstream artist gambling their reputation by over-sharing was as ubiquitous a rock and roll cliché as the double live album and the heroic destruction of a Doubletree suite. Records like Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, and Val Stoecklein’s Grey Life express the near-universality of deflated expectations. At their best, they resonate with anyone who’s ever had a case of the answering machine blues. At their worst, their self-pitying solipsism still makes for great art. Beck’s Sea Change is one of the last of the records in this great tradition, and yesterday, it turned 10 years old.
Beck had bared his soul before, in a sense, on 1998’s Mutations, and like Sea Change, that album followed an impersonal, irony-saturated work with a more reflective, earnest one. But it’s easy to mistake Mutations’ largely acoustic mood for actual primacy. Beck is one of pop music’s great chameleons, but his capriciousness works best from album to album, and not from song to song, when his eclectic leanings can often sound satiric and insincere. Peppered throughout Mutations are odious genre experiments — colonialist tropicalia, druggy psych folk, fatback r&b — that consistently break the album’s spell. This impish insistence on the blending of every sound he has ever heard has rightfully earned Beck as many detractors as fans. Sea Change, however, finds our hero exploring a single theme: heartbreak. For this gesture of thematic focus alone, Sea Change is an achievement. The fact that the album features the same band as the markedly different Midnite Vultures is also a testament to Beck’s immaculate vision, as well as his warranted trust in a group that effortlessly matches his own versatility.
More importantly, Sea Change most differs from the disputatious Mutations (and other acoustic-based albums like the great One Foot In The Grave) in that it is not so much mellow as it is lush, and it’s not so much personal as it is, well, sad. Beck’s well-publicized breakup (with his girlfriend of nine years and fiancée Leigh Limon) provides the context for these songs, and he sounds as if he’s aged 25 years since Midnite Vultures — compare his vocals on “End Of The Day” to “Debra.” All the studio sheen in the world can’t really disguise the fact that dude’s been seriously, irreparably damaged by this breakup.
Producer Nigel Godrich’s reputation as something of a King Midas for post-grunge acts is well earned. His production, here and elsewhere, is of the “you get what you pay for” variety, and Sea Change quite literally sounds like a million dollars. The reverb on Beck’s voice alone –- rich and full-bodied -– sounds as if it has been worked-over for weeks. Still, for a supposedly mellow album of songs about heartbreak and loss, Sea Change can come off as oppressive, frequently dramatic when intimate and woozy would do. Occasionally, it sounds like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for people who collect vintage pinball machines.
And then there are those pesky accusations of theft. Oscar Wilde almost certainly had Beck in his crystal ball when he uttered his famous quip about talent borrowing and genius stealing. Critics have always bayed in adulation at Beck’s Prince-ly poses and obscurist MCing, but Beck’s affinity for pastiche is not at all limited to schizophrenic classics like Odelay. On Sea Change, the objects of Beck’s affection are mostly Serge Gainsbourg and AM radio navel-gazers of yore like Graham Nash, Gordon Lightfoot and Poco. The similarity between the arrangement of “Paper Tiger” and Gainsbourg’s “L’hotel Particulier,” for instance, is uncanny. Many frothing haters will also tell you, quite correctly, that “Round the Bend” –- one of Sea Change’s most stunning songs –- pretty blatantly cops Nick Drake’s “River Man.” Now, this may seem like criticism, but Beck has always approached his records with the decorous eye of a museum curator (see also: Air, Ween, Beastie Boys), so why should his approach differ now that he’s finally dealing in actual feelings? It is crucial to remember that Beck’s a folkie at heart — his earliest records make this clear — and what is folk music (or blues, for that matter) without appropriation? If the primary distinction of Sea Change is that it attempts to be timeless rather than merely timely, it only does so by dialing back the kitsch and referencing things that are actually good instead of ironically good. Taking that into account, the sound of Sea Change isn’t much of a departure at all.
But this isn’t an instrumental album, and if the form of Sea Change remains consistent with Beck’s body of work, the content is anything but. This is not merely a record of breakup songs, but one of highly specialized breakup songs. The tone throughout is reflective and resigned; the complete lack of bitterness or cynicism in the lyrics sets it apart from any other record like it. On Sea Change, Beck isn’t scissoring the faces of his ex out of old Polaroids, and he’s not muttering or sobbing or calling to see if anyone answers and then hanging up; he’s just totally, thoroughly, pitiably disappointed. For proof, listen closely to the last few seconds of “Lost Cause,” when Beck lets out an exhausted sigh. It concludes one of the album’s most devastating songs with one of its most revealing, beautiful moments. Later, when Beck groans “I wanted to be a good friend” on the Big Star-esque “All In Your Mind,” the prior suggestion to do away with the self-described perdedor on “Loser” suddenly seems more humane than humorous. The lyrics of Sea Change are sung from a position of bummed vulnerability, but they are rarely trite, which is one of the more admirable high wire acts of the sensitive singer-songwriter. In the end, it’s the maturity with which Beck handles this split that may be the most unsettling thing about it.
If this all sounds more the domain of a sad sack the likes of, say, Neil Halstead than that of a man whose former lyrical concerns revolved around Satanic tacos and dildos large enough to crush the sun, consider that Beck was 32, richer than God, and utterly heartbroken when he recorded Sea Change. An enduring, well-loved record is certainly the best thing anyone could have hoped to emerge from such circumstances. I dig this version of Beck: the leaf blower-wielding performance artist reborn as heartbroken bohemian superstar. And there is, of course, a perverse moral to be found in the woeful tale of Sea Change, as well: Even after years of running on rocket power, it’s good to know that even our biggest stars, too, occasionally get nailed to the ground.