Ever since the Los Angeles born Beck declared “In the time of chimpanzees / I was a monkey” on his alt-slacker anthem “Loser” in 1994, the musician has capriciously evolved his sound over the past decade, flirting with everything from the wacked-out hip hop of “Where Its At” to screeching falsetto ballads like “Debra”. It’s difficult to think of a single genre he hasn’t toyed with. He’s shaping up to be the modern David Bowie, a musical chameleon constantly reinventing himself.

Paul Wong
Beck
Sea Change
Geffen

On Sea Change, his fifth major label album, Beck is more mature than we have heard him before. His lyrics are candid, brutally honest and at times downright painful. Beck’s voice has never been his strongpoint, but on Sea Change it sounds, well, beautiful. From the first chords of the opening track, “The Golden Age,” Beck reveals a stripped down side to his music that is his most personal. This is the great American record that we always knew this wacky genre-hopper had in him, a brilliantly sad record about lose that stands out even as those themes are beginning to seem worn out.

Gone are the pulsating dance rhythms, krush-grooves and hypnotic choruses of 1999’s Midnite Vultures. What we are left with is simply a man, his guitar and his egalitarian sorrows. In a sense, Sea Change is the anti-Midnite Vultures. Instead of mixing bizness with pleasure, he combines his devastating misery with grief.

The haunting strings on “Round the Bend” draw listeners back to Mutations’ “Nobody’s Fault but My Own,” one of Beck’s most sincere and painful songs in his catalog. Strings are used liberally throughout the album, and lucratively, much like on the tragic folk hero Nick Drake’s first two morose albums. Nigel Godrich, who has produced the likes of Radiohead and Travis, shapes Sea Change in the same subdued fashion that he did 1998’s Mutations, but here the songs are more consistent in their tone, resulting in a more cohesive album.

Nonsensical lyrics that were so abundant on Beck’s previous albums have been replaced by heartfelt words that can only stem from suffering. On the superb track “Lost Cause,” Beck sings “They know your secrets/And you know yours/This town is crazy/Nobody cares.” The album lacks the levity of his former efforts, and Beck confirms with his lyrical dystopia that Sea Change is not a irreverent romp.

At this point in his career, the still-young singer/songwriter is at the top of his craft. When you consider his near-flawless back catalog, his talents become almost intimidating. This may or may not be Beck’s finest album to date, time will certainly tell, but it is the best album of 2002.

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