Sea Change

Sea Change

Reflecting on the collapse of an almost decade-long relationship, Beck Hansen’s eighth studio album often draws comparisons to Bob Dylan’s classic 1975 breakup record Blood on the Tracks. The parallels certainly hold up, especially with Hansen’s voice hanging at a notably lower register than on 1998’s similarly mellow Mutations, and the mercurial performer setting aside his sample-based busy-ness to bask in spacious, elaborate ballads alongside a masterful backing band. His father, David Campbell, even arranged the dynamic and often dramatic strings. Another key collaborator here is producer/mixer Nigel Godrich, who helmed Mutations and the bulk of Radiohead’s catalog. Godrich is responsible for the incredible depth of space that makes this introspective material feel even more profoundly personal. That’s not to say the record is a downer: herein lies some of the most moving songwriting of Hansen’s career. “Lost Cause” is gorgeous despite its resigned refrain (“Baby, you’re a lost cause”), and the strings inject chamber-pop grandeur into his open-hearted vulnerability on “Lonesome Tears.” The album’s confiding air extends to the Nick Drake-esque “Round the Bend” and “It’s All In Your Mind,” a lush reimagining of a lo-fi 1995 B-side. While the scratchy slide guitar of “Little One” does hark back to Beck’s earlier days, “Sunday Sun” gently swells with more unusual instrumental bedfellows (including bamboo sax, multiple banjos, and Wurlitzer). Most of all, these songs feel timeless in a way that’s new for the perpetually evolving entertainer. Not the only tune to mention the past by name, “Paper Tiger” combines a spry rhythm section and close-looming strings to evoke “Ain’t No Sunshine”-era Bill Withers. There and elsewhere, Beck’s vocals and lyrics are strikingly understated—especially compared to his past forays into rapping and falsetto. On a similar note, it’s telling that his harmonica part on “Guess I’m Doing Fine” is a subtle parting gesture rather than the usual scene-stealing flourish. Multi-instrumentalists Smokey Hormel, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and Joey Waronker fluidly change course as each song requires, and Godrich himself lends some keys and percussion. No singles from Sea Change were released for radio, prompting the album to be taken as a whole, and it instantly became one of Beck’s mostly roundly acclaimed releases. Even after he returned to his collage-like approach for 2005’s Guero, these melancholy reflections have continued to resonate as a major creative milestone rather than a fleeting catharsis.

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