While ‘Sea Change’ is surely Beck’s most personal album to date, he characteristically pulls off the feat of being expressive without ever telling specific stories. Beck Hansen the person remains, as a true artist must, elusive. His creativity serves more as a doorway for expressions than as a wall for autobiographical graffiti. What is not elusive is that he has captured more of the spirit of our chaotic, mood-swinging age than any other young songwriter. ‘Sea Change’ is predominantly an acoustic, folk-rock album, but the undercurrents of multiculturalism and the constant presence of technological distortion give this album a very different feel from ‘One Foot in the Grave’, or even from ‘Mutations’. Perhaps the closest earlier foreshadowing of these songs is to be found in ‘Whiskeyclone Hotel New York 1994’ from his debut album ‘Mellow Gold’, a standout track that early on promised a depth of emotion that Beck has at times studiously avoided – though that’s certainly not the case here. Also of note is how the “gadgetry” employed on ‘Sea Change’ contributes to the emotional impact of the songs. No technical gilding of the lily or playing with noise for noise’s sake as on ‘Midnite Vultures’, but it is still quite amazing in its own right.
The stereo Super Audio Compact Disc program on this new Geffen disc is sonically impressive, but it truly pales next to the multi-channel mix. Some may like the narrower focus of sound of the stereo version, but it tends to bury some of the background effects. The stereo mix lacks the intimacy and warmth that comes from having the soundstage envelop you, making it feel harsh in comparison. I have not heard the “regular” Compact Disc version (Note: This is not a hybrid issue. The “regular” Compact Disc version is sold separately.), but I can’t imagine it competing with what is on this DSD SACD. The stereo mix here resembles CD sound in its constricted feel, lacking the openness and “air” of the spectacular surround mix by Elliot Scheiner. Scheiner wisely keeps Beck’s vocal and acoustic guitar in the vicinity of the front center so that presentational illusion is never lost. Some of the backing instruments spread throughout the room, but Beck is always front and (phantom) center where he should be.
Nigel Godrich is the producer of the album, but Paul Bishow is credited as “executive producer for SACD”, making it unclear to what degree Godrich oversaw the creation of the 5.1 multi-channel mix. But whatever the case, the multi-channel mix is as artistically appropriate as it is state-of-the-art. This is a mix sure to be highly influential to other artists and producers. It is quite aggressive, but works exclusively to add to the meaning and texture of the songs. There is some creative use of surround technology here, such as the “background” synthesized sounds on ‘The Golden Age’, which twice gradually make a full circuit of the room via the five main channels; but what is more impressive is that the effect is not a mere gimmick – the song is about searching through desolation, and the production mirrors the message, sending the wavy, mirage-like sounds on a fruitless search through a sparse, deserted soundscape. In the stereo mix, no such voyage happens. Only in multi-channel do we hear this potent effect. It is the kind of touch that makes ‘Golden Age’ a good demo track to show off your system, but the hard part will be turning it off after just one track. Of course, one dreads to think how many whiz-bang multi-channel productions must await us in the future from less perceptive artists and producers – at least they can’t make the excuse that no one showed them how to do it right. The path through the desert has been charted. Let knob-twiddling producers in the future wander off it at their own risk!
Another standout track is ‘Paper Tiger’, an unlikely synthesis of pop catchiness, dark chord progressions, jazzy blue notes, eastern scales, Beatlesque strings and bleak lyrics. Indeed, the color of Godrich’s inventive production highlights just how bleak the words are: “Tell a dead man how to die.” Beck’s worn vocal is subtly intensified in the middle of the song by extra processing, which tightens and constricts the sound of the voice. The song, like many on this album, builds up in layers of sonic activity and then falls away fruitlessly, unable to achieve a cathartic breakthrough.
‘Guess I’m Doing Fine’ sees Beck in something close to country-crooner territory, except that no mainstream Nashville country song would be so thoroughly distorted: The pedal steel guitar is drenched in reverb and the whole song creeps along in drugged slow-motion. ‘Lost Cause’ initially brings some relief toward the middle of the album by featuring gentler, more consoling music, but the words are dismissive and sullen. A quietly nagging tick of percussion persists throughout, and fragments of backward sound-loops rise up with distortion and reverb like periodic swirls of fog, an effect that returns in other songs. In fact, the consistency of production gestures helps knit this album together, furthering the sense of a journey already created by the implied emotional continuity of the songs. Fragments of sound both electronic and concrete show up at the end of some songs, even with a poignant audible sigh from the singer at one point. Foggy distortion hovers around the edges of all the tracks, moving across the soundstage like waves of static in several. We may be wandering through the desert, or adrift on the sea, but the neon lights of twenty-first century life are always somewhere on that lonely horizon.
The black hole at the center of this little galaxy is the song ‘Round the Bend’. The major/minor fluctuations give it an unease as potent as a Nick Drake song, but the dark, richly saturated production gives it an exquisite “last days” feel that makes Drake look almost wholesome and stable in comparison. The acoustic guitar, bass, and vocals present the song simply, but the surrounding distorted strings twist in slow-motion dread. Coming on its heels is ‘Already Dead’, a song which betrays its title by showing signs of pleading warmth entering Beck’s voice in the refrain, just as the acoustic guitars cut more clearly through the sound than before – indeed, coming after the deep blending of sound in the previous song, some may find the guitars intrusively clear. Here and in ‘Sunday Sun’, overdubbing of instruments and voices give the songs a searching, unfocused feel, but it is clear that some corner has been turned. ‘Sunday Sun’ finally erupts into a noisy passage with booming drums and crashing piano chords. As guitars and drums come out on top, the messy onslaught quickly breaks down and trails off. But at last the looming fury has been released.
The album’s title comes from a line in the next-to-last song, ‘Little One’:
Sailors run aground,
In a sea change
Nothing is safe.”
After the anger of the preceding song, this is where the queasy emotions flood out and turn this twisted lullaby into the emotional release that the album has been searching for all along. It closes with ‘Side of the Road’, which deposits us in another empty and desolate landscape, but the difference now is that there is a feeling of healing begun. Only a gentle hum of electronica hovers in the air at the end, the ghost of the turmoil left behind.
To be sure, this isn’t the sort of album that you’d want to listen to everyday unless you’re going through a breakup or something similar. Many of the songs tend toward slow and despondent, and none rises up faster than mid-tempo, but into every life some dark days must come. Nice to know that when they do, Beck’s ‘Sea Change’ will be there to keep us company, along with Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’, Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’, Reed’s ‘Magic and Loss’, and… name your favorite.
To close, I feel compelled to go from the sublime to the ridiculous and pick on the SACD jewel case Geffen used to package this recording. Thus far, I’ve also come upon this new design on a Telarc SACD, and I despised it there, too. This case has little plastic holders on the edge where the program booklet normally slips out, instead of on the top and bottom. Here the top and bottom have solid closed of edges, so that the only way the program booklet can be extracted is by bending the whole thing to pop it out of its holder. After only a handful of examinations, I can tell that the whole booklet is developing a permanent bend in the middle. Is this really necessary? Was there some great monstrous plague of people dropping booklets when they opened their SACD’s that I didn’t hear about? In an age when we can launch rocket probes to outer planets and build computers that dominate our lives, can anyone explain to me why we’re not technologically advanced enough to make a CD jewel-box that works right? Sheesh…