Confounding expectations, Beck releases CD about romantic pain.
New York Daily News
October 2, 2002
From Roy Orbison's "Crying" to "Song for the Dumped" by Ben Folds, the
breakup song is one of pop's most enduring traditions. But few artists have dwelled on a broken heart as morosely as Beck does on his recently
released "Sea Change."
Fulfilling the promise of its title, "Sea Change" is a marked departure for the
normally whimsical singer. His last album, 1999's "Midnite Vultures,"
found him emulating Prince as he cruised Hollywood freaks and seduced a salesclerk with a fresh pack of gum. "Sea Change," his seventh
major-label release, presents the artist's somber side as he sifts through a long relationship
turned to dust.
"Lonesome tears, I can't cry them anymore," he sings in an almost disembodied
voice. "I can't think of what they're for/Oh, they ruin me every time."
While Beck, 32, won't say much about what inspired all this heartache, it's well known that in 2000 he split with stylist Leigh Limon, his girlfriend
of nine years. Each of the dozen songs on "Sea Change" examines the dissolution
of love in a manner so personal that he didn't even want to record them at first.
"I sat on these songs for a couple of years, because I didn't really want
to talk about my personal life," he says. "I'm more interested in focusing
on music and not really strewing my baggage across the public lobby. But
I ultimately felt like the songs speak to an experience that's common, and that most people find
themselves in. It didn't seem to be self-indulgent at the end of the day."
As a sign of his newfound seriousness, Beck (whose full name is Beck Hansen)
even dispensed with his signature brand of absurdist lyrics. (Example: "I've got a devil's haircut in my mind." Instead, he's unusually direct,
delivering the most intimate, deeply felt songs of his career.
"I think humor is a necessary weapon of survival _ it can get you through
a lot," he says. "At the same time, I don't want to use that as a crutch.
There's something that I was trying to express on this record where the humor would have demeaned the intent."
Beck's new direction is already sparking talk of Grammy nominations and this year's "best" lists. An arresting album that has no counterpart on
the contemporary pop landscape, it shows Beck's development as a musician
who is constantly challenging himself.
"It's the nearest thing he's done to a confessional record," says Nic Harcourt, music director of influential Los Angeles station KCRW. "He's
clearly an artist who is growing and evolving, and there is more depth to his work. It's a more revealing album. We get something of an insight
into what he's gone through."
In keeping with the bleak nature of the lyrics, Beck's music has also changed. While he's best known for his hyper-electric collages of samples,
hip hop, rock and country, "Sea Change" is resolutely down-tempo, with densely layered string
arrangements, gently strummed acoustic guitars and mournful pedal-steel wails.
Hard-core fans may recognize the sound from pieces on 1994's "One Foot in the Grave" and 1998's "Mutations," but it's hard to pinpoint where
this fits in with the innovative, technology-driven experiments that built his
reputation. Some have compared his lonesome blues with that of Hank Williams,
but Beck thinks looking at his influences won't reveal the true source.
"It's usually the first question people ask _ what you're listening to _ as if the stuff couldn't just come out of your head, your own mind,"
he says. "I think influences are there, but for me it's sort of a vocabulary.
And the vocabulary of this kind of music is Hank Williams and (British folk-rocker) John Martyn all the way back to Bing Crosby and to the Beatles.
It's a language."
The language may be well-established, but whether it will find an audience
is another issue. Retailers think "Sea Change" is a tough sell that may
not get much radio support. But they add that Beck's maverick reputation,
critical acclaim and the possibility of multiple Grammy nominations might
offset an uncommercial sound.
"It's a really beautiful album, but it's going to appeal to a different audience than he's had before," says Vince Szydlowski, senior director
of product for the Virgin Megastore chain. "If you're used to the `two turntables and a microphone' Beck, then this isn't the record for you.
I think it'll go gold, but it'll struggle beyond gold." Others think his
core audience can't be dissuaded, no matter how stark the music.
Championed by indie fans who value artistic integrity over platinum sales figures,
Beck can rely on them to give "Sea Change" the two or three listens it may take to get the new sound.
"It's a departure from `Midnite Vultures,' but that's what Beck's all about," says Jim Kaminski, the rock buyer for Tower Records in Greenwich
Village. "He keeps you guessing and his fans are ready for anything. He's
like the male version of Bjork."
The focus of all this speculation, though, isn't too worried about where his latest album ends up on the charts. Cashing in has always been a secondary
concern for a guy who started out in a punk band, gained attention as a quirky folk musician, became an indie rock star for melding alternative
rock with hip hop and then deconstructed R&B through a filter of 1980s
"I just work hard to carve out my own area," says Beck. "People can come
and look and have a listen if they like, or not. Or they can listen to the new video pop pap. They know they're going to get something different
with me, because my tastes are just different from what the prevalent mainstream
sound is. We could have made these songs sound real mainstream and funked-up.
But for me, that's not my taste."
And even if fans don't love his latest work, Beck says he's already planning
his next changeup. He says he has a slew of "guitar-heavy rock songs" and
hopes to release another album next year. Meanwhile, he has been collaborating
with techno maven Cornelius and dreaming about a session with legendary hip-hop producer Timbaland.
"Trying to predict where Beck is going, as well as where he's coming from,
is kind of a pointless exercise," says Harcourt. "He shifts around; he's
a chameleon. He puts out the body of work and then moves on. And all I know is that it will be
completely different next time."
While the public sees an artist who zigs and zags through each new release,
Beck believes there's a unifying thread that runs through his career. Each
album documents a portion of his musical journey, but he's always treading
a number of paths. "The records may sound like I'm just doing one thing,
but in reality I'm pursuing all kinds of ideas and sounds at the same time,"
he explains. "As diverse as my records are, I think they're kind of cohesively
diverse. But I always wanted to put out a record like `Sea Change,' with
the same kind of mood all the way through."
Part of that restlessness was surely instilled by his creatively charged upbringing. His father, David Campbell, is a respected arranger who worked
on the chilling strings throughout "Sea Change." His grandfather Al Hansen
was an artist associated with the Fluxus movement of the 1960s.
External pressures also incited Beck to keep defying expectations. In 1994, his first hit, "Loser," threatened to tar him as the poster boy of
the slacker generation. It's a label he quickly outgrew, but the image still lingers, reminding him of the need to change.
"At the time I didn't really think about it much," he says.
"Because in my personal life, I wasn't walking around with people saying,
'You're a slacker icon.' That kind of thing only exists in the media. If anything,
it gave me a feeling of needing to branch out and not being trapped as some kind of one-dimensional musician or performer."
Already, Beck is making moves to reinterpret the songs he just released. He has dismissed both his longtime touring band and the group he worked
with on "Sea Change." In their stead, he has tapped respected indie rock
vets the Flaming Lips to be both his opening act and his backing band.
The Flaming Lips are renowned for their oddball approach to pop, melding neo-psychedelic sounds with humorous contemplations on the meaning of
life. Beck is so pleased with the group's take on his songs that he's thinking
of going into the studio to re-record some of his hits and recent material.
Meanwhile, Beck likes to think about his songs stripped of all sonic innovation,
turntable flourishes and heavily sampled trappings. He'd like them to be
considered classics, and already has been rewarded by seeing Johnny Cash
cover "Rowboat" and Tom Petty take on "***hole." Most recently, he wrote a handful of songs for Marianne Faithfull, who
included them on her latest album, "Kissin' Time."
"The only thing I can say is that I love music," Beck says. "And, as a songwriter, I'd like to contribute some decent songs to _ I don't know
what you'd call it _ the great golden songbook in the tower somewhere. These are my entries and my applications. That's what you shoot for as