How come Beck gets away with being a Scientologist while Tom Cruise and John Travolta get constantly baited for it? My guess is that his fellow e-meter toting Xenu haters could conceivably be quite boring people if you disregard the S word. Fans of Beck on the other hand – the king of the chameleonic genre-hoppers – would probably be far more concerned if he turned out to be a Catholic. If anything the fact that he has been paternally indoctrinated into bizarro-world just re-affirms that he’s human, just like everyone else. To my mind, Beck is the most consistently great musician/singer/songwriter of the last twenty years and somehow, nearly every album is drastically different from the last. ‘Sea Change’ is perhaps his biggest surprise yet, in that it has chosen the often ruined and cliched sub-genre of “the break-up album” and out-done everything else within its field. In other words; ‘Sea Change’ is quite possibly the best break-up album ever. Marvin Gaye’s spite on ‘Here My Dear’ or Bob Dylan’s pained and nostalgic ‘Blood on the Tracks’ sound like mere bumps in the road compared to Beck’s devastating resignation. While the opener ‘The Golden Age’ carries hints of optimism, there’s an under-current of denial somewhere in his placid vocals that let’s you know that all is not well. From here, ‘Sea Change’ sinks gradually into a confusion and dispair peaking with the achingly beautiful ‘Round The Bend’ in which warm and strangely under-stated strings envelop you in his quietly turbulent mind-set. When the pain peaks however, it gradually becomes stable and collected once more and unlike Marvin Gaye, it genuinely sounds like Beck is preparing to move on with his life, looking back with both remorse and fondness on what once was, but looking to the future, since the future is all he has left. The music itself is both unclassifiable, universal and diverse from the desolate and sparse ‘All In Your Mind’ to the lush flourishes of ‘Sunday Sun’ which ends in a ten second guitar noise binge.
Though it’s more conventional than his other albums, owing plenty to Nick Drake (and very little to the Beastie Boys), it still sounds vastly different (not to mention better) than nearly everything else out there. This is most definitely a break-up album; despite never explicitly mentioning women, relationships or even love, it’s the emotional communication of the music itself that betrays its true intent and it’s this that serves as ‘Sea Change’s crowning achievement. Who cares about Scientology; if Charles Manson had made an album like this, I’d consider the whole killing spree thing as a mere charming quirk. A near-perfect and stunning record that will stand the test of time with no wear whatsoever.
Listen to this: after a really bad break-up.
Key Track: Lost Cause