A musical chameleon, ever since his 1994 major label debut, Beck Hansen has played the part of the soul man, techno man, hip-hop lounge lizard, and king bee of junk culture.
He's down 'n' out this time though as Sea Change comes across as a gloomy breakup album, loaded with sad songs, sweeping strings, and plenty of deep, sleepy vocals. One part Nick Drake another part Gram Parsons, it's got country flavors fading into forlorn echoes of late 1960s and early '70s psychedelia, a clever mélange aimed straight for the brokenhearted.
It's also got two of the best songs that Beck has ever penned.
With its first line “Put your hand on the wheel, let the golden age begin,” Beck sets the mood brilliantly on the album opening “The Golden Age,” a haunting, steel-traced song of desolation and distant lights.
He follows it shortly after with another wonderwork in “Guess I'm Doin' Fine,” which is very reminiscent of Harvest-era Neil Young. The melody is flat-out gorgeous, coloring lines about living lies and flowing tears.
Those cuts emerge as the most memorable on the disc, but there are several other soul-stirring moments as well. “Lost Cause,” with its vivid images of small-town secrets, moves from acoustic guitar folk flavors to backward effects and swelling strings, the latter arranged by Beck's father David Campbell. And “Sunday Sun ” offers traces of India, rich dynamics, and some of the most open melodies on the album. It'd be hard to call it uplifting, but it's the right song at the right time, shifting the mood ever so slightly.
All the dreariness eventually does take a toll though, and as the album winds down it runs out of steam, as typified by tracks like the dirge-like “Round the Bend” and the sleep-inducing “Side of the Road.”
Still, Beck and producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) have teamed here to create an unsettling yet illuminating look at love and loss, seen through the eyes of one very restless soul.