Make no mistake; I have never, until now, been much of a fan of Beck's work, until a friend convinced me to give Sea Change a listen. And the album is certainly no misnomer; Beck's sometimes-indulgent need to stretch across every possible musical genre has been greatly curbed, resulting in a minimalistic yet starkly elegant bluesy-folk rock sound.
That's not to say Beck has abandoned his electronic toys entirely this time around -- many of the album's songs show tweaking with echo and some background sound effects -- but thankfully he leaves the album without a repeat of the ingratiatingly-fratboyish "Where It's At" or "Loser". His acoustic guitar and voice clearly take the forefront here, and for good reason. Whereas electronic turntable recordings are dime-a-dozen nowadays, true singing and instrumental talent are precious commodities in popular music, and Beck reveals a surprising prowess in both.
Among the album's strongest tracks are "Lost Cause", where Beck's usual electronic experimentation underlies elegant guitar craftsmanship and haunting vocal work, and the mostly-instrumental "Round the Bend", where Beck masterfully weaves the few muddied vocals and quiet strumming into the now-clichéd orchestra-and-string accompaniment. Unfortunately, Beck does include the obligatory rocker: "Paper Tiger", the album's second track, feels unsurprisingly out-of-place; nevertheless, it does little overall to mar to Sea Change's majesty. This is truly worthy praise for an artist once known for simultaneous breadth but lack of depth, a tendency he has avoided for the better on Sea Change.
Often, this kind of minimalism and sudden shift in the aural landscape either makes or breaks a group's career -- while Nirvana's posthumous Unplugged in New York is widely-regarded as one of their best works (no mean feat from the group behind the seminal Nevermind and In Utero), Pearl Jam never quite recovered from the misstep of No Code. For his part, Beck pulls this one off with amazing bravado; sadly, it is unlikely Sea Change will propel him to the same heights as Odelay, as this is easily his finest work yet, and (along with The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) one of the few albums from the past few months that I heartily recommend.
(Side note: the Beck Web site includes a streaming copy of Sea Change in its entirety [click the Beck logo -- free registration required, but bogus info works], so K5 readers whose interest I have piqued can listen for themselves before buying.)