Rediscovering EXTRA: Beck’s Sea Change

It’d have to be the moment I start feeling better about things that I get stuck with the sad sack album in the stack, yeah? All good though. This is one of those all-too-rare Rediscoverings that’s relevant to other folks in the group! A bunch of us actually like Beck, which, while not necessarily putting more pressure on me to like this particular album, does make this a Rediscovering that’s more about sharing and discussion than it is simply me rambling about random music to my overly-polite friends. And boy, there’s a lot to discuss.

Beck's Sea Change

Spoiler, this is gonna be a good’un. From the “not initially in the pile” pile, let’s take a look at Beck’s unintentional second masterwork, Sea Change.

My previous experience, if any

I love Beck. I found him after I found a copy of his forever-underrated Modern Guilt in my sister’s closet, and doing what I do with albums, stole it. Such became an exploration into one of the few people in modern music who can genre hop without it seeming forced or surface level and write surrealist pop gems without it seeming pretentious. That’s where Sea Change scared me: this is his most earnest album, a largely acoustic breakup record, and one of his most beloved. And I remember being horribly bored by it last time, despite loving his other acoustic work.

The history lesson

Beck’s initial run saw him be the media’s favorite joking ironic hipster, stringing together noisy punk, slide guitar, hip-hop beats, and samples from 70’s sex ed records one album and spoofing Prince the next. Sea Change came as a shock because Beck had never been this direct and emotionally vulnerable before. As said, it’s a breakup record, and it became one of his most celebrated releases for the amount of range it really revealed Beck to have, some even comparing it to Bob Dylan. High praise–and you know how that goes here on Rediscovering.


I have to put down my previous boredom with this album to a single song on it: “Paper Tiger”. It’s a sparse, very low-key song that really belies just how beautiful this album can sound. It sounds like the kind of thing I’ll love one day, but today is not that day. That said, the rest is wonderful.

This album has some of the best sounding acoustic guitars I have point blank ever heard on a record. Acoustic guitars have a tendency to either boom or slash harshly, but these are so rounded, so full, that I commend Beck and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s favorite producer) for somehow crafting them. There’s occasional Godrich-sounding moments on here (the ending of “Little One” reminds me of the ending of “Let Down”), but rarely will you ever notice him in particular. You’ll be too busy enjoying the sounds.

And really, that’s what you should know going in. The songs are very good, but the sounds are gorgeous, and they’re the biggest pull. These are aural paintings, with Beck turning strings into epic, quivering lead instruments (no doubt courtesy of his dad David Campbell), and simple-at-heart songs being colored up by layers of fingerpicking, glockenspiels, Wurlitzers, and the occasional rogue synth. Nowhere is the layering more effective than on “Lonesome Tears”, where the strings hang big and eerie before exploding into the kind of beating in your ears that happens when you break down crying.

If it sounds self-indulgent, what keeps it from feeling as such is the brisk pacing, the way the album evolves over its well-integrated pseudo-thirds, and the simple, effective lyrics. Beck never truly mopes–his sadness is more in vein of someone like Hank Williams, that kind of classic country directness, than it is self-obsessed wallowing like “a big technicolor breakup record” might sound at first. Good example: “Already Dead” already sounds a little dramatic on its face. A modern moper might say they feel dead; Beck says it’s dead to him–because he’s watching helplessly as something rather dear dies in front of him. Poor bastard.

What helps even more to cut the feeling that this a spur of the moment mopey breakup record is that these songs are very kindred spirits to Beck’s older work. “Lost Cause” sounds like an updated “Dead Melodies” from Mutations, which trades spots with Guero and Modern Guilt quite regularly as my favorite Beck album. “Dead Melodies” was never the most notable track on Mutations (though still pretty dang solid), but “Lost Cause” gives it an unassuming, exhausted little hook in its refrain–“I’m tired of fighting/Fighting for a lost cause”–and gives it real weight as a result.

The comparisons to old Beck tunes don’t stop there. “It’s All in Your Mind” is an old Beck tune, a cast-off single from the sessions that produced his first proper folkie outing One Foot in the Grave. I haven’t listened to the original as of writing this, but the version on here is hypnotic and wavering, fingerpicked very simply and very effectively. “I wanted to be your good friend”–the nagging, recurring lyric in each verse–reminds me an awful lot of “Do you ever think about me?” from the criminally underrated band Earlimart, funnily enough, also based around Silver Lake, California as Beck was and still is.

I alluded to Sea Change being divided into three pseudo-thirds. It might just me, but this really does play as three months condensed into 53 minutes. “The Golden Age”, an incredibly ironic, quietly hopeless ballad, kicks off the stretch of the record that hurts the most, and it’s low-key to match. The middle third sprawls a little, more repetitive, more introspective–it’s all in your mind, after all. By the time you get to “Sunday Sun”, Beck isn’t afraid to let the sun come up a little, and the songs get bigger and more hopeful to match. It’s like personal growth turned into music.

Albums that work off sound more than music are usually growers, not showers, but Sea Change really does grab you the first time around. It doesn’t feel like an hour long. Even the two truly slow, almost dull moments on the album, the aforementioned “Paper Tiger” and “Round the Bend”, don’t do much to stop the proceedings. For something that should play incredibly maudlin and self-pitying, Sea Change knows where it’s going and gets there without many detours. For something built out of such simple melodic parts and layers and layers of sounds, that’s incredible.

Good to see Beck can show everyone up at moping too.

Are you keeping it?

Sorry dcb. Mine. (Should send you a burn of it someday though.)

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