Analogue Music | Sea Change is a boring album from a capable artist

Unpopular Opinions: Beck's Sea Change

By Fletcher Martin

Sea Change is Beck's worst album.

And now that the collective hackles of the old hipster community have been raised, please allow this humble author to walk this statement back: Sea Change is not Beck’s worst album but definitely, most certainly, not his best.

Not even close.

Sea Change is held by one or two or authorities to be Beck’s de facto masterpiece and, as much as the Buddhist in me would never want to disabuse another person of a happy, supporting tenet of faith, there is an idiot in me that needs to right perceived wrongs. Or, perhaps, to offer further illumination on a complicated artist.

Sea Change, as the story goes, is a break-up album and a classic stripping down of the artistic walls. The gonzo sampling, the wacky production choices, the surrealistic word play that were staples of a Beck that could simultaneously delight and confound listeners were gone with this album. The perceived notion that this was a broken-hearted Beck, a more serious, straightforward Beck and because of all these things, a more important Beck, is what I rail against.

Beck’s music offers a complex and often contradictory experience. A modern word one could use is Meta. Beck’s music is layered with irony and genre play, much of his music adorned with, or built upon, samples of other artists. The samples on Odelay are a laundry list of the obscure, cool and classic: Laura Almeida and the Bossa Nova All Stars, The Them, and (of course) Schubert. Beck’s big break-through single off Mellow Gold took its drum beat from a 1970 album by Johnny Jenkins, a guitar man who is mostly known for having employed a young Otis Redding on his way to stardom.

Beck uses samples--and even more so genres--as guises

It could be said that Beck uses samples, and even more so, genres, as guises: the acoustic/harmonica folkisms of Mellow Gold, the faux white-boy-rap of Odelay, the schizophrenic mishmash of Mutations, the sex-crazed R & B of Midnite Vultures. His habit of genre diving reached its zenith in “Debra” off of Midnight Vultures, a song so genre-specific Beck should be wearing a Prince costume when he performs it.

So with all guises, ruses, and masks removed on Sea Change what do we have? A slow, slog of acoustic songs overpowered by Nigel Godrich’s vacuum-sealed production. The few genre touches that creep in are lyrical and lackluster. Lonesome tears are a long, tired cliché of classic pop. (How can tears be lonesome?) The bluebird outside his window is an aged reference meant to give a glimpse at Beck’s remove from happiness but fails, in context, to give any feeling at all. “The sun don’t shine even when it’s day,” is about the biggest sad song trope I could never hear again. Where in past albums Beck playfully used trope and genre to make artful contrasts there is little of that on Sea Change.

Beck Hansen is at his best when he is building futuristic, alien, sonic structures like a dumpster diving, found-music, sculptor. The sad fact is that when Beck isn’t building something with the vast musical database he holds in his brain, like a brilliant child with a giant bin of all the Lego pieces ever made and not-yet-made, he doesn’t always have that much to offer.     

It’s an album with a gratifying tag of “sad” when much of Beck’s music defies such simple and immediate understanding.

Let’s take a look at the album track-by-track:    

“The Golden Age,” the first track, is so slow and drawn out it can reverse time with its gravitational pull. He does use the phrase “desolated view,” which is kind of cool, but then the Godrich production comes on hard and you begin to think this is a scrapped track from Radiohead’s The Bends.

“Paper Tiger” lives up to its name.  

“Guess I’m Doing Fine” could be and should be a sincere and affecting song if it wasn’t pre-cursed by the previous two tracks.

“Lonesome Tears” features lyrics as worn and tired as the narrator portrays, then these lyrics are draped awkwardly over top of spacey synths and strings smuggled in from a Radiohead Amnesiac recording session.

“Lost Cause” may very well be the best track on the album. The guitars are bright and delicate at the same time offering a fragile warmth and welcome respite from the overproduced coldness of the previous tracks.

“End of the Day” is “Paper Tiger” part two with mildly better results.

“It’s All In Your Mind” may be the most successful version of what Hansen and Godrich were trying to accomplish with this record. It actually manages to pull off the slow somber sadness and still be affecting: simple guitar figures intertwining and wandering about, connecting and separating, lost and questioning with slightly subtle Godrichism’s painting in the scenery behind them.

I’m sure there is something deep and philosophical being said in “Round the Bend” but at this point in the album I’m exhausted and as much as I try I can’t pry my tired third eye open.

“Already Dead” is, once again, another aptly named track.

If you’re still awake at this point in the album, “Sunday Song” does have some power in its Eastern tones, reverberating chords, and mountain top vocals. The track even shows some liveliness at the end with a carefully crafted freak-out.

“Little One” is an interesting track with some nice production flourishes and lyrical twists but it doesn’t do well trapped at the end of an already-boring album. Even so “Little One” could still pass convincingly as one of the lesser tracks from Mutations—and this is not a compliment.

Finally, “Side of the Road” brings it all back home: a simple song, meant to be honest and raw. As a performance, it is executed valiantly on both sides, despite Godrich’s need to have the last word with a final reverberating, synth chord. As a track, it does little to truly impress or surpass the mostly middling, leaden mix of tunes that came stacked before it.

Sea Change
Sea Change
There are many meaningful songs that grapple with and excel in the sounds and words of sadness, but so few that capture the truth of depression.

Hanson and Godrich created a Beck album that has no clear or overt musical genres or references (no small feat) and, in the process, made a Beck album with little life or excitement to it. It’s like having dinner with Daniel Day Lewis and figuring out he’s just as boring as the rest of us, instead of watching one of his intense performances.

The duo, however, did succeed fantastically in making an album that sounds like the heart of depression. There are many meaningful songs that grapple with and excel in the sounds and words of sadness, but so few that capture the truth of depression. There is good reason for this. A rather large difference exists between melancholy and depression. As dark as a feeling of sadness can be, it still involves feeling and lends itself well to beautiful music. Sincere depression is a stifling emptiness, an inability to feel anything, good or bad. Sadness can have a certain romance to it, depression is exceedingly boring, tiring and, most certainly, unentertaining.

It’s dangerous to conjecture why such an album has achieved so much acclaim that its unofficial/official sequel, Morning Phase, won the Grammy for best album. It’s almost like a sort of posthumous award for Sea Change. It’s dangerous because the reasons are various, complicated, and perhaps just as simple as this: people like some of the songs because some of the songs aren’t bad.

If I were to throw caution right into the wind and hazard a guess as to why Sea Change became the “Best Beck Album” I would consider the quicksand nature of Beck’s art as a whole. With a body of work that can obfuscate as much as titillate, and make a listener delight one second and make them shake their head in disbelief the next, it’s easy to see how Sea Change is a place of calm in the storm for some. It’s an album with a gratifying tag of “sad” when much of Beck’s music defies such simple and immediate understanding.    

So, if you like Sea Change, I’ll close by saying that I hope this piece made you a little angry. Because that anger is a more sincere feeling than Sea Change has ever given me.