Talk about a confounding chronology. Following the 1999 release of Midnite Vultures, Beck was quick to volunteer that it, and not 1998’s acoustic offering Mutations, was intended as the “true” follow-up to his 1996 smash, Odelay. Now, three years later, comes Sea Change, the long-awaited follow-up to — you guessed it — Mutations.
Not that yet another bold change of direction should surprise fans who have been following the eclectic singer/songwriter since his stunning 1993 debut, Mellow Gold. During the past decade, the ever-inventive Beck has established himself as a gifted chameleon, combining the showmanship of James Brown and the funk sensibilities of Prince with his own unique brand of hip-hop-tinged alternative pop. On Mellow Gold and the more sophisticated Odelay, he fused those styles — throwing in blues, jazz and easy listening for good measure — into grand, kitchen-sink productions. Beck left no genre untapped in his quest for sonic bliss.
But every now and then, as he did on 1994’s One Foot in the Grave, he strips down, turns off the sound machines and revisits his folk roots. Backed by Nigel Godrich, the producer responsible for Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A, Beck crafted the vastly underrated Mutations, his warmest, most engaging album since Mellow Gold. Godrich is back behind the wheel for Sea Change, Beck’s seventh solo effort, and the collaboration once again bears fruit: Sea Change is a work of rare, understated beauty that ranks as one of Beck’s finest achievements to date.
He kicks off the proceedings with “The Golden Age,” a lazy, country-flavored ballad that recalls John Denver and Willie Nelson. But Beck quickly ups the ante with “Paper Tiger,” a slow, seductive number whose seamless fusion of strings and slinky guitar riffs provides a tantalizing blueprint for the rest of Sea Change. “Lonesome Tears,” a somber meditation in the same vein as Mellow Gold’s “Blackhole” and Odelay’s “Jack-Ass,” is a sweeping epic that finds him waxing melancholic above a swirling sea of mellotrons, clavinets and cellos (imagine Air’s Virgin Suicides sound track with Beck on the mic) that builds into a rousing climax reminiscent of the coda to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” But perhaps no song better illustrates Beck’s talent for creating luscious, intricately woven soundscapes than “Little One,” the penultimate track on Sea Change. More than “Lonesome Tears” and the languorous “Nothing I Haven’t Seen,” the tune conveys the profound sense of longing that permeates the album, and Beck’s vocals have rarely sounded stronger.
Fans of Beck’s exuberant collaborations with the Dust Brothers (Odelay, Vultures) may be disappointed to find no dance-hall anthems here; indeed, Sea Change doesn’t boast an obvious single like “The New Pollution” or “Sexx Laws,” and its tone is subdued by comparison. Even so, it is Beck’s most personal album to date, and further proof that he remains one of the most exciting artists on the planet. Along with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sea Change ranks among the year’s best.
E-mail Rossiter Drake at email@example.com.