Beck Gets (Kind Of) Blue: With a revealing new album of mournful ballads, the fusion king reveals a whole different side.
September 30, 2002
v160 i14 p76+
Josh Tyrangiel

Amoeba music is a warehouse-size record store on Sunset Boulevard that is filled with lonely, unshaven guys in vintage T shirts and about half a million CDs. It is High Church for music geeks, and strolling through Amoeba with Beck--the wispy singer who has made a career out of fusing rap, rock, folk, funk, irony and earnestness--is like cruising the Vatican with the Pope. As Beck moves from the back-room blues section to the used vinyl, everyone sneaks a quick, reverent glance and returns to flipping through the racks, or at least pretending to flip through the racks. All eyes still follow Beck, curious about what the king of musical collage has on his shopping list. 

"I'm really getting into James Taylor," says Beck, 32, cradling a beat-up copy of Taylor's 1975 easy-listening opus, Gorilla, its cover featuring a mustachioed Taylor in white leisure suit and sandals. "When I was younger, I used to think he was awful. But people don't understand that as much as punk was rebelling against guys like this, he was rebelling against punk--just singing from the heart." Beck, who once fronted an L.A. punk band, is not kidding. He grabs eight used Taylor LPs and presents them to a goth kid behind the register. The kid smiles and says,  "Interesting."

Some people are talented enough to do whatever they want with their careers. Few of them actually do it. Beck is among the few. After 1999's Midnite Vultures, essentially a postmodern rap comedy album, what Beck wants to do is be direct. Sea Change, his seventh and best album (out this week), is a simple affair. It's a breakup record--almost all the songs are ballads--with a slight country-blues feel. There's little of Beck's trademark musical schizophrenia and none of his arch humor. "I just wanted the record to be simple and clean," he says. "I wanted economy in the lyrics, and I wanted the songwriting to be very, very straightforward." 

Sea Change was born after Beck split with his longtime girlfriend, stylist Leigh Limon, in 2000. He wrote most of the album's 12 songs in one prodigious week, then put them in cold storage. "Songs sit in my head for a while," he says. "I have dozens in there, songs from eight years ago that I've written but never recorded. After a while, I just sort of decide to record them." In early 2002, Beck drifted back to the breakup tunes and called his frequent producer, Nigel Godrich. A few weeks later, Sea Change was finished. "Everything with him is that simple," says Godrich, "because unlike most people, he always seems to know exactly what he wants to do."

For a multiplatinum pop artist at the height of his career to do a love-sick ballad album is a risk. For him to do it without any meddling from his record company is a minor miracle--and a tribute to Beck's business savvy. When he arrived on the scene with 1993's Loser, a lo-fi novelty hit from which most critics thought he would never recover, Beck was inundated with record offers trying to capitalize on his status as the Slacker Guy. "I could have gone with it," he says. "That could have been my shtick. But I wanted to be something a little more." 

Beck took a low offer from DGC (now Interscope), because it allowed him to record on the side with independent labels and gave him complete artistic freedom. As his subsequent albums bounded between the accessible (Odelay, Mellow Gold) and the avant-garde (Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Mutations), artistic freedom and experimentation became his shtick. It's an inherited trait. His grandfather Al Hansen was a member of the European artists' collective Fluxus, which specialized in Dadaist performance pieces. But Beck draws inspiration from contemporary sources too. "Brando was in some movie"--1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau--"where he's in a white gown, white face paint, and he's wearing a hat that's an ice bucket, and there's a midget dressed exactly like him on his shoulder," he says. "And he's acting like it's Shakespeare! But it threw me. He's fearless, and I think every artist should embrace a certain amount of that." 

Beck has produced a few face-paint moments of his own over the years, and they have mostly come when he has toyed with acoustic material. Mutations, the album most similar to Sea Change, has several songs that sound exotic, clever and conspicuously weird, as if Beck were doing an emotional experiment rather than summoning actual feelings. ("Puritans stare, their souls are fluorescent/The skin of a robot vibrates with pleasure" went one particularly opaque Mutations lyric.) But Sea Change feels distilled from real tears, and the sonic intensity is helped in part by Beck's physical maturation. His singing voice has got significantly deeper. "Before we recorded," says Godrich, "we listened to Mutations, and his voice sounded like Mickey Mouse. His range has dropped. Now when he opens his mouth, a canyonesque vibration comes out. It's quite remarkable. He has amazing tone." 

He is also singing some of the most devastating lyrics of his career. Breakups are to singers what World War II is to historians, but Beck distinguishes himself with lines like "Your sorry eyes cut through the bone/They make it hard to leave you alone... Baby you're a lost cause" and "Seen the end of the day come too late/Seen the love you had turning into hate/Had to act like I didn't even care/But I did so I got stranded standing there." As failed-relationship albums go, it's nearly as good as U2's Achtung Baby, although Sea Change's uniformity of pace and tone causes it to flag a bit near the end. ("We recorded a song about a border-patrol cop that sort of sounds like a Delta blues video game," says Beck. "But, you know, it didn't make a lot of sense for this record." 

Listeners will no doubt cling to Sea Change as Beck's most personal album, though he says, "I've always challenged the idea that serious material is more indicative of who a person is. I don't think the laughing side of a human being is any less them than the side where they're depressed." Beck has a tough time staying serious, even when performing his new songs. During a brief tour in August, he alternated between ballads, covers, requests from the audience and improvised riffs about Axl Rose. "I may ruin my career tonight," he giddily told the audience. Yes--and that's why they came.