Any self-respecting songwriter worth his salt will eventually get around to recording his "breakup album." Blood on the Tracks, Rumours, Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, Bruce Springsteen's
Any self-respecting songwriter worth his salt will eventually get around to recording his "breakup album." Blood on the Tracks, Rumours, Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love the one commonality they all share is their theme: the wonder of love and how difficult it is to find and sustain it. Each masterwork was written in the midst of some sort of personal romantic crisis for the performer. In each case, this information deepens the album's tangible pangs of sorrow and regret. The songs aren't abstract meditations but are honest, open accounts of the turmoil. We listen and we understand hey, we've all been there before.
Beck's Sea Change is his breakup album, a document of the dissolution of his long-term relationship. After years of white-boy rapping and faux soul-man cuteness, Sea Change is a straight shot from the heart, sincere and unapologetic.
Much like when our popular comedic actors become maudlin in order to win Oscars, Beck has been widely praised for the new record. It's as if Sea Change's confessional tone in some way is a penance for the cheeky pastiche of the different musical styles he incorporated on Odelay and Midnite Vultures. But calling Sea Change a masterpiece isn't going to get around Beck's fundamental problems as an artist. He is quite possibly one of the most talented, knowledgeable songwriters of his generation, and yet he has managed to be more frustrating than astounding over his career. The new album is no different.
The last time Beck was in such a somber mood, he delivered Mutations, a soft-spoken departure after the breakthrough success of Odelay. Despite weak sales, Mutations remains Beck's finest overall album. Although it's a spiritual cousin to Sea Change, its advantages demonstrate what Beck fails to do on his new record.
Even four years after the fact, Mutations is a terrific, stripped-down affair. After the giddy playfulness of Odelay, Mutations was haunted and moving. The prevailing themes were desolation and abandonment, of a world gone wrong. But it could also be darkly funny and unpredictable the bounce of the near-hit "Tropicalia" and the resigned chuckle of "Bottle of Blues" lightened the mood somewhat but did not diminish the overall intent.
While Mutations was almost treated as a side project, an "unofficial" follow-up, Sea Change is being pushed hard as Beck's "serious" record, an artistic statement. In interviews, Beck doesn't want to talk about his ex-girlfriend, but the songs clearly look back on their relationship. By finally recording his breakup album, Beck has done his Dead Poets Society, his The Truman Show, his Punch-Drunk Love the funny man as you've never seen him before.
And there is no doubt that this is one serious, sincere record in fact, it's suffocatingly so. Beck got his heart broken, but he also lost his sense of humor and perspective along the way. Sea Change is repetitively down in the mouth, drowning in a plaintive prettiness. The sad-eyed man doesn't have time for the danceable rhythms of "Tropicalia," he wants to make it apparent just how depressed he is. After years of staying away from more personal material and opting for ironic musical collage, Beck this time pushes too hard in the opposite direction. Just as when Woody Allen followed up Annie Hall with the deathly icy Interiors, Beck's new record sees seriousness as its own reward.
With its layered, emotive string sections, Sea Change wants to wow you with its melancholic sound. And it does to a point. But its mood is all of a piece there's very little range of tone or subject matter. (Typical song: slow, mournful opening; Beck's sad delivery; lyrics about life being sad; down down down.)
This is not to discount Beck's grieving for a lost love. But he's so monstrously downbeat on Sea Change that he loses us along the way. It could also be that these songs as a group aren't his strongest. Too many of them, although deeply melodic, lack an insistent resonance they hover in the air listlessly, a shapeless cloud of malaise. "Round the Bend" and "Lonesome Tears" drift along on pure misery, but they have no bite. You keep waiting, hoping for Beck's prankster side to come forth with a surprise. But the arrangements on these tone poems are instead frustratingly austere. They're overproduced, not compelling.
Meanwhile, the lyrics may be more straightforward on Sea Change, but they don't conjure up images or stories there's no point of view to these tales of woe. Perhaps Beck is trying to be universal in his suffering, but it actually has the opposite effect. Think of Blood on the Tracks: That album rips you apart because of its specificity. The details buried within "Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate," and "Idiot Wind" and their flurry of hope, sadness, humor, and anger make them breathe and live. Likewise, Rumours and Tunnel of Love take intimate scenes within a relationship to arrive at basic truths about the fragility of love. These classics cover the whole span of emotions, which makes them feel lifelike. Sea Change, for all its acoustic guitars and wounded singing, rarely gets that close.
At its best, Sea Change can reverberate with a sense of place and time and experience. "Lost Cause" combines a delicate chord progression with a low-key sendoff to an unfaithful lover; its hushed tones make its determined stand all the more poignant. Similarly, the stately "Already Dead" and the grand "Sunday Sun" treat romantic separation in drastic, almost apocalyptic terms. (Their urgency and dread are a relief from the gauzy moping that infects much of Sea Change.) It's also no coincidence that these tracks are easily the catchiest on an album that doesn't have too strong of a pulse.
Ultimately, what we have here is a triumph of "mood." The damn thing's got so much "mood," in fact, that it suggests a level of quality the actual material can't sustain. Just as his jokey hybrids on Odelay and Midnite Vultures played more like postmodern exercises than actual tunes, Sea Change is knee-deep in artifice. His father, noted musician David Campbell, throws on a lot of strings for "Paper Tiger" and other tracks to add to the take-it-serious factor of this record. (Beck has said that he wanted to incorporate them in a more organic, orchestral way than is typical of your average, slick teen-pop ballad.) But the string arrangements only make the songs feel more theoretical songs about what sad songs are supposed to sound like. They rarely resonate. They're just part of an effect. Almost everything on Sea Change is part of an effect when it really should be coming from the gut.
Breakup albums are the kind you cling to even after the breakup is ancient history. You feel the personal connection to the artist: Hey, we've all been there before. They may be lush, they may be stark, but they get through to you. In his attempt to be sincere and direct, Beck sacrifices his wit and his talent all in the name of good taste. He's singing about heartfelt matters, but he doesn't put himself into the heart of the songs. Sea Change means to be sad and beautiful. But it's just a bummer.