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Beck may not stand as the artist of the 1990s. Change that: Some of his music from that decade is unlistenable. To Beck's credit, however, he was an artist of the '90s. His catalogue offers a window into Generation X's inability to analyze demons without making a smart-ass joke -- irony on the sleeve, big fat middle finger. The reformed street musician shot to fame on his single "Loser." Critics assigned importance to it ("I'm a loser, baby/So why don't you kill me," over a slide guitar and fat drum machine loop), though Beck and collaborators insisted the song was a joke.
From there, he joined white-boy druggie-hop innovators the Dust Brothers to create one of the decade's finest hours, 1996's Odelay. The album mixed cock rock, funk, hip-hop staccato-ness and shit-eating grins ("Community service and I'm still the mack") for a state-of-the-state address of a guy who just didn't care, i.e., he became the cliché generational spokesman. By decade's end, he was playing horny lounge hopper on 1999's Midnite Vultures, novelty at its purest, down to a slow-jam knockoff about a chick at JC Penney.
Yet through the bohemian's journey, there lay another strand -- profundity. It took a few listens, and it also took a coffee house poetry circuit vet to translate the thicker non sequiturs. But there was evidence of a feeling guy. Take "Nitemare Hippy Girl" from 1994's Mellow Gold. The song is a joke, lampooning the granola chicks who college boys want to fuck and then abandon: "She's got dried-up flowers and flaky skin/A beaded necklace and a bottle of gin." Beck, though, lays his goofiness over a movingly constructed acoustic guitar riff and bubbling melody. And the song's bridge-and-coda combo proves evocative: "She's a witness to her own glory/She's a never-ending story." Who, regardless of sex, hasn't thought similar things? Sit next to the guy or the gal at the bar:
"I don't get her!"
"More Wild Turkey!" Beck's universality, as obfuscating it is, makes the song meaningful.
Now the obfuscator, at age 32, finds himself in crisis. Beck doesn't want to hide anymore, which makes his latest record, Sea Change, exhilarating. He once kept his heart on the sidelines, never fully committing to ethos. His most poignant song was dismissively named "Jack-Ass." His grandest attempt at seriousness, the country-splashed Mutations, relied on odd metaphor: "Out in the mangroves, the mynah birds fly/In the shadows of sulfur, the travelers drift by/They're chewing dead meat in a house of disrepute," Beck sings on "Lazy Flies." In other words, suburbanites are vultures. He wouldn't dream of just shooting it straight, would he?
He does that and more on Sea Change. This is what the messy breakup of a long-term relationship can do -- Beck and his girlfriend split last year. The slacker extraordinaire no longer can play the Greek chorus to his own life. The crap's up to his ears, and he can only reluctantly begin to dig. No more Gap-rapping; he sings for real with surprising clarity.
No question, the sarcasm is still there. He opens his "life sucks" manifesto this way: "Put your hands on the wheel/Let the golden age begin." Sounds hopeful enough, but "The Golden Age," with its balladry, Southern-rock dynamics and echoed melody, makes it clear this golden age isn't so glorious. "The sun don't shine even when it's day/Gotta drive all night just to feel like you're O.K," he moans in verse two. Wow, we can dig that without flashing a requisite smirk. As chimes sound in the background and a mysterious layer of keyboards swirls, Beck belches the chorus, a dejected "I don't even try."
Producer Nigel Godrich, who launched Radiohead into integrity with his work on OK Computer, provides Beck with the ideal accompaniment for his earnestness, the lush dramatics and emphasis on vocals that made the early '70s work of Nick Drake and other sensitive songsters so vital. "Round the Bend," with a torchy string arrangement supplied by Beck's dad, David Campbell, sounds like a leftover from the Pink Moon sessions. Here, Godrich and Beck's well-heeled backing band give the songs a tension that seems to prevent them from bursting into a rage. Beck is a mad-ass tear-jerker here, as if he may dissolve at any moment. The music and studio trickery seem to consciously hold the singer back. The battles within the songs (it's easy to envision a robotic general shouting, "Hold your fire!") make them resonate, so that a three-minute song can feel like a 30-minute therapy session. "There's a bluebird on the window/I can't hear the songs he sings," Beck croons on "Guess I'm Doing Fine," a more forthright exercise in sardonic song-titling.
In the bygone days, Beck's nastiness amounted to a pose, a blank look into a camera that suggested, "I eat dip for breakfast and I have crabs, but doesn't your life suck?" On Sea Change's crowning moments, "Already Dead" and "Lost Cause," he's just nasty. On the former, a somber pop ditty, Beck cries through the chorus, "Already dead to me now," punctuating it with the words ". . .Cuz it feels like I'm watching something die!" He also makes it clear he doesn't believe this is his fault: "Days turn to sand/Losing strength in every hand/They can't hold you anymore." Ouch.
"Lost Cause" marks Beck's territory as a singular talent. It also bridges the Beck we used to know with the Beck we're now just getting to know. It sounds unsettling, with backward tape loops and altered glockenspiel and clavinet, and the lyric confirms that the song very much is: "There's a place where you are going/Where you ain't never been before/No one laughing at your back now/No one standing at your door/Is that what you thought love was for?" Again, we get the message loud and clear. Beck don't need no more mynah birds.
Inevitably, critics will bury Beck with accusations of losing his edge, that he's becoming conventional. Granted, they'll have ammunition: "Lonesome Tears," despite pretty strings, borders on high school drivel: "How could this love/Ever turning/Never turn its eye on me." Does anyone remember that even greats like John Lennon and Bob Dylan fell into this trap numerous times? Lennon dedicated a whole record to primal-scream self-righteousness. Dylan cried like a bitch over his divorce, converted to Christianity and, for a time, became as deep as Pat Boone.
Beck's break from his weird '90s stylings, then, falls into pop tradition, which makes it excusable. Perhaps future offerings will return with the beatnik disguise in place. The shift in gears, though, is a powerful one. This Sea Change erupts out of left field, and thankfully so.