Because Sea Change forgoes the cheeky postmodernism that has been his calling card since Mellow Gold, a lot of writers have decided that we're finally getting a glimpse of the real Beck Hansen. If that's true, he's one ho-hum dude. Rolling Stone master of hyperbole David Fricke writes, "It's the best album Beck has ever made, and it sounds like he's paid dearly for the achievement." The price of greatness? Getting dumped by a longtime girlfriend. (As Fricke would have it, when you and I get ditched we're just taking life's lumps, but Beck's suffering for his art.) As breakup albums go, Sea Change is an elegant weeper but hardly a masterpiece like Blood on the Tracks. Lines like "It's only lies that I'm living / It's only tears that I'm crying / It's only you that I'm losing / Guess I'm doing fine" may well be heartfelt, but they're no more profound or poetic than the notebook scribblings of any other indie-rock sad sack. Soul baring doesn't necessarily produce better work than meticulous artifice, and there's more life in the self-consciously buoyant pastiches of Odelay or even Midnight Vultures than anything here. Still, this one-note exercise (which was produced by Nigel Godrich, who also did Beck's equally sullen and sincere Mutations) does have its morose pleasures. On "Paper Tiger" Jason Falkner's psychedelic guitar effectively punctures the gorgeous orchestral score (written by Beck's father, David Campbell), which is reminiscent of the bleak splendor of Scott Walker. And Beck sings "The Golden Age," a refined folk-rock stroll browned at the edges by country twang, with a marble-mouthed grace. I like this record, and I can't fault the guy for letting it all out, but I sure hope this new earnestness isn't permanent. Flaming Lips open this sold-out show. Friday, October 18, 7:30 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-443-1130 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roe Ethridge.