Beck in the High-Life

by Lyndsey Thomas

The life of Beck Hansen reads like a tall tale and could very well be remembered as one. The story of his adventures will be passed down from generation to generation, like those of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. Critics will be hushed as our brave hero outwits the villainous one-hit-wonder. Children will marvel at the young man whose path to super stardom involves dropping out of high school, while parents will only be able to shrug and say, “Yeah, I guess it was for the best.”

Over the years Beck has metamorphosed from a basement-dwelling bohemian to the synth-sexin’ life of the party. With individual songs, he worships his influences from Johnny Cash to Caetano Veloso to Prince. And he makes these transitions as smoothly as an ice cube melting in the sun.

In the mystical world of celebrity, however, Beck has reached the twilight of this Saturday night. He sounds tired and it looks like he might be staying in for once. If Midnight Vultures was the ultimate party album, urging you to get down with that fine young J.C. Penney’s salesclerk, Sea Change asks, “Is this really what you want from life?” as you throw away beer cans and phone numbers the next morning.

Although the new album falls into the quiet category, fans looking for a sequel to 1998’s Mutations might be disappointed. While Nigel Godrich acted as producer for both, Sea Change doesn’t have the psychedelia factor, opting instead for lush string sections. And while Mutations separated its very distinct sounds (e.g. “Bottle of Blues,” “Tropicalia”), Sea Change walks a straight and level path. Change isn’t the word for this album, so much as consistency. This could easily be the best album of the year to fall asleep to.

Although the album drifts by without much commotion, there are standout tracks. It may or may not be a coincidence that these have the best string arrangements. “Paper Tiger” is a slow burning, bass-driven groove with the guitar fighting to be heard over the swell of the strings. “Lonesome Tears,” another superbly orchestrated tune, just begs to be used as the theme in a tragic love story. If Sea Change does become your pre-sleep listening, make sure to stay awake for “Sunday Sun,” a blissful piece with an Indian influence that falls apart in a way that should be very familiar to fans.

Wonderful instrumentation aside, the album’s strong point is its personal charm. Beck’s not imitating anyone here. It’s just him. Not only are the lyrics introspective and much more comprehensible than previous albums’, they’re printed in the liner notes for further analysis. And if that’s not personal enough, the guy put his face on four “collect ’em all” covers, for God’s sake.

So is he really ready to hang up the robot dance? Of course not. For one thing he’s touring with the Flaming Lips, a band equally if not more obsessed with robots. Artistic cooperation could very well depend on that dance. And besides, legends like Beck always last longer than they seemingly should.