Up until 2002, it always seemed as though Beck was playing a character, a musical chameleon who consistently valued levity over sincerity. No longer hidden behind voice altering machinery and (often nonsensical) stream of consciousness lyrics, Sea Change allowed audiences to see the real Beck, as he displayed his most vulnerable insecurities. Brought about by the collapse of his nine-year relationship with Leigh Limon, this brooding shift in tone makes it difficult to believe that this is the same artist who released songs like “Mixed Bizness” on his previous record.
The directness of the lyricism makes the sentiments of the album feel timeless. The songs were released in 2002, but they would have resonated just as profoundly half a century ago, and they will certainly remain accessible for years to come. Beck’s playful spirit took a backseat, and his music was no longer shackled to the abstract. Instead, Sea Change, his most disciplined work, feels like an Impressionist painting, with stripped down acoustic tracks provided with immense layers of mesmerizing sound.
Setting the wearied tone of the album with a solemn lullaby, “The Golden Age” is an acoustic ballad that beckons the listener to come along for a melancholy drive across a California desert highway. The presence of Nigel Godrich is certainly prominent on the track, as the song dips into parallels of Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” There’s a spiritual reverberation, aided in part by the sonic brushes of spontaneity, from the childlike sting of the glockenspiel to Smokey Hormel’s savory guitar tones. As he’s apt to do, Beck forms his own gospel choir as he harmonizes with himself.
One of the more overtly daring tracks on the album, “Paper Tiger” feels more like Beck’s earlier work than anything else on the album. It’s an experimental orchestra number, with sounds rushing toward the audience from many different directions. Sea Change marked Beck’s first professional collaboration with his father, David Campbell, whose swelling string arrangements all but hijack this song. In many ways, it feels akin to the style that Britpop acts such as Pulp and The Verve had striven for just a few years earlier.
As it so often goes, Beck’s road to acceptance begins with denial, as we see on “Guess I’m Doing Fine.” In a sweeping declaration, he works toward convincing himself that he is satisfied with the way things turned out until it is no longer a lie. Musical, it is simple yet captivating, constantly feeling that it is submerged in water. Even as Beck is putting on a presentable face, we are able to glimpse the nuggets of truth that are floating just below the surface. He is distracted by taking in his surroundings, leading to some classic Beck word association: “All the battlements are empty / And the moon is laying low / Yellow roses in the graveyard / Have no time to watch them grow.”
Another song that is dominated by the orchestra, “Lonesome Tears” quickly morphs into an empowered, operatic vision. Although its chorus burns with the scorn of how unfair love so often can be, it is the first time on the album that we are given a genuine moment of hope, as Beck is able to begin moving past the pain. He is making a conscious decision to turn his eyes away from the past and onto brighter horizons. The track is grand in scale compared to the rest of Sea Change, driven by an overwhelming and enveloping force. It builds to a celestial stature, before dissipating entirely in a flash.
“Lost Cause” brings the volume down a bit, mainly focusing on acoustic finger-picking dancing against ambient scenery. Beck’s stoic, mumbled delivery helps to sell the song thematically, reducing it to the rubble left in the aftermath of an emotional disaster. In the midst of romantic trauma, Beck just finds himself exhausted, and he realizes that it was always going to go down this way. Although the song was released as a single, it was far too somber and reticent to garner much airplay on pop radio stations.
An absolutely stunning track, “End of the Day” drifts in and out of consciousness, meticulously designed to be trance-inducing. The artist at his most cinematic, the song finds Beck reflecting on the “day,” namely the relationship he had poured so much energy into only to see it crumble to the ground. He knows that his experience is shared with countless others, but that in no way lessens the pain it has caused: “It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before / But it still kills me like it did before.” It should also be mentioned that Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s bassline is one for the ages.
The title of “It’s All in Your Mind” further confirms the dreamlike sensibilities that the album so ardently clings to. Another track with an obvious Nigel Godrich footprint, the song takes a repetitive and moody rhythm and breathes life into it with auditory idiosyncrasies strategically placed throughout. As the song points out, we often give our emotions complete control over us, allowing them to evolve into something monstrous. Simply realizing this can put us back in the driver’s seat of our own psyche.
With definite influences from Donovan and Nick Drake, “Round the Bend” feels strikingly intimate, even as the orchestra swells. Here, we see Beck as a crooner, with vocals that are consistently both emotional and seductive. Thematically, the song reaches well outside of the speaker’s own world, focusing on the finality of time. Bouncing through hypnotic dreamscapes, the song thrusts its audience into the supernatural realm.
“Already Dead” contrasts flowery melodies with somber lyrics, affording the listener a moment of peace before realizing where the song is going. It is stylistically different from the rest of the album, bending the notes to bring in sounds that fall somewhere between Mediterranean rhythms and American country music. Beck is exploring how quickly a relationship can wither away, even one that seemed to be built on such a steady foundation.
With the inclusion of more international influences, particularly in the Far East strings and percussion beats, comes “Sunday Sun.” The siren song backing vocals almost seem to dictate where The Flaming Lips were headed shortly after this album was released. Keeping with one of Sea Change’s many through lines, the song is all about accepting the inevitable. It is a spectacularly orchestrated track, with a wall of sound produced from many seemingly contrasting instruments synchronizing with one another.
Opening with an acoustic guitar riff that would feel at home on a Nirvana track, “Little One” is a winding desert road that takes many different musical turns. If there is one track on Sea Change that captures the stylistic experimentation and tonal spirit of the album, it’s this one. It is rare to see a song cover so much musical ground so completely. Even in the depths of heartache, Beck doesn’t shy away from embracing his psychedelic musings.
Beck has often spoken about the influence that blues music had on him at an early age, but it rarely comes out overtly in his songs. Still, that is precisely the well he draws from in “Side of the Road.” The final track on the album (although some international releases include “Ship in the Bottle” as a coda) leaves the audience with a down-to-earth breath of clarity: “On a borrowed dime / In different light / You might see what / The other side looks like.” The album ends where it began – on the road – but now the driver approaches the situation from a newfound vantage point.
Produced with a precision toward achieving complete tonal balance, Sea Change opened a new world of possibilities for Beck, proving to even his harshest critics that his range far exceeded the novelty act persona that he so often adopted. The record is an immersive, emotional landmine, and it is absolutely exhausting when taken in altogether in a single sitting. It is the embodiment of an impassioned release following a tumultuous breakup, and as such, it twists and contorts itself to fit whatever mood the listener brings to it.