Where is he coming from? That has been the essential question about Beck since he burst into American popular music with "Loser," his folk-rap slacker anthem—or was it a brilliant send-up of slacker-tude?—eight years ago. The question is really two: What is Beck's relationship to the array of musical styles he mines, sometimes willfully misreads, and often wildly mixes? How does he wish his songs to be understood? These are interesting questions—one of the things that has made Beck so captivating is that he and his music raise them—and they only get more interesting, I think, with the release this week of his fifth major-label album, Sea Change. It is not his most adventurous album, nor is it likely to be influential— Odelay is destined to remain the touchstone in both those respects. But Sea Change, as the title implies, is a daring departure, if only for the sadness at its heart and for Beck's need (who would have thought?) to express such sadness, his sadness. It also happens to be the most finely crafted and sustained recording of his career.
Sea Change, in addition, affords a clearer view of where Beck has been coming from—or better, where he has been from all along. In the increasingly globalized realm of pop, it has perhaps become too easy to overlook the fact that much of the music, and most of the best of it, remains stubbornly rooted in place. The rock the Strokes make is fundamentally downtown New York rock (Velvet Underground, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids); the rock the White Stripes play is, in essence, Detroit rock (Mitch Ryder, MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges). The music Beck makes is to a great degree informed by the musical traditions of Los Angeles. The connection to place may be less obvious in his case, but that's because Los Angeles is a sprawling city where a number of pop-music styles and subgenres have had the room in the past 40 years to sprout and secure a space for themselves. To make his Sea Change, Beck moved out of one of those L.A. traditions and into another—settled, for a time, in a new neighborhood, as it were.
Since the start of his still youngish career (he turned 32 earlier this year), Beck has worked mostly in the L.A. bohemian-hipster mode that emerged in the mid-1960s out of an avant-garde, proto-hippie scene whose denizens were called "freaks." The freaks' house band was Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, who brought to rock a weird fusion of sonic experimentation and pranksterish, neo-Dada pastiche. Captain Beefheart made music in this hipster mode, as did, in a more subdued way, Van Dyke Parks, who most famously wrote lyrics thick with word-play and allusive suggestion for Brian Wilson's never-completed Beach Boys opus Smile. Musically and lyrically, from Mellow Gold through Odelay and even in such songs as "Tropicalia" from his more laid back Mutations album, Beck cleverly and sometimes ingeniously worked the freakster vein: astutely sifting pop music's backwaters; confiscating and collaging; setting his jive word-images on a collision course with one another; affectionately satirizing pop's past.
But three years ago, with his Dr. Funkenstein incarnation on Midnite Vultures, the approach ran aground on the shoals of race. Beck seemed to have lost sight of what was being re-contextualized and satirized—and for whom—and the result was a get-happy record that didn't make you very happy at all. Even Beck doesn't give the impression of being too happy with it anymore. At a New York concert in August, he fended off several requests to play songs from Midnite Vultures, saying at one point that he'd like to make a "real R&B" album someday.
The unadorned guitar chords Beck plays slowly to begin Sea Change sound real enough—this kind of strumming signifies "intimacy" and "authenticity" in popular music as few things do. And as the album's first song, "The Golden Age," unfolds, the mood is, for a while, reinforced—the chord changes are stately; his tenor has deepened and honeyed; and the lyrics are plainspoken, bereft of his customary repartee. It's a song about a solitary nighttime drive out of the city and into the desert, and the emotional weather is Joan Didion's.
But by the song's end there is no mistaking the music for alt-country or neo-folk—not with the synthesizer colorations and Wurlitzer whirs and glockenspiel tings and the background singers ooh-ing and aahing (actually Beck himself, multi-tracked). And by the middle of the jazzier second track, "Paper Tiger," with its near minute-long, melodramatic string interlude (arranged and conducted by Beck's father, David Campbell, an L.A studio veteran), it is apparent we haven't left the city after all. The sound is pure Los Angeles—not hipster L.A. but that of a different late -'60s tack. What suffuses Sea Change are the mostly overlooked and even eschewed (and therefore perfectly Beckian) recordings of L.A.'s earliest singer-songwriters: Jimmy Webb, Lee Hazlewood, and Harry Nilsson, among others, along with the string-laden folk-psychedelic songs, arranged by Jack Nitzsche, that were Neil Young's contributions to Buffalo Springfield and his first solo LP.
These singer-songwriters never formed any sort of movement—they were, like Beck, inveterate loners. What they shared was an abiding respect for the heartland songs of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, and (with the exception of Young) an ambition to write and sell hit songs to an L.A. industry still rather enamored of Tin Pan Alley and the studio wizardry of Phil Spector. They adjusted: first in the songs they wrote for others, and then, when the advent of rock bands with their own material upended the songwriter-producer-performer system, in songs they wrote and sang on their own. The result was a distinctly Los Angeles country-tinged pop, one in which the hill-country ballad was augmented by surprising chord changes, suspenseful bridges, sweeping orchestration, and elaborate studio production. Those searching for clues to where Beck is coming from on Sea Change might listen to Webb's own rendition of his hit for Glen Campbell, "Galveston"; or, from Young's first album, the song "The Old Laughing Lady," which Beck's "The Golden Age" echoes down the years.
What Beck might have found attractive in this music, aside from a certain outré status it's come by of late, is how its sophistication works to create distance—in his case, from his own forlornness. It is understood that most of the songs on Sea Change were written in the wake of his breakup with his longtime girlfriend. But there is nothing raw about Sea Change—it's not Pink Moon. Situated deep in a vast soundscape beautifully sculpted by the producer Nigel Godrich, visited regularly not only by strings but by layered keyboards, ornate percussion, and the commiserating guitar work (electric, acoustic and slide) of Smokey Hormel, Beck loses himself not in his songs but in the recording of them. Even on the most tender and stirring of the tracks—"Guess I'm Doing Fine," "Round the Bend," "Lonesome Tears"—Beck isn't confessing or revealing but performing.
Sea Change, then, is no less theatrical than anything else he's done. It's just the effect that's different—which, of course, is everything. In the end, what's crucial is not what he's feeling but what he does to make you feel (which, listening, you do). On Sea Change, Beck gets to places you never expected him to, or were never sure he could. Which is, after all, what a venturesome artist should be aiming for, wherever he's coming from.