It was far more our doing than his, but in 2002 whether or not Beck “meant it” still felt like a fair question. His first hit, and still the song of his that a casual music fan is most likely to know, was 1993’s “Loser” — pretty much the ne plus ultra of musical slackerdom. The LP from which “Loser” shrugged forth, the “ironically” titled Mellow Gold, closed on a drifting, seven-minute dirge called “Blackhole.” I had to look that up. I could sing the chorus to “Loser” right now. So could you.
Mellow Gold was quietly followed by the folky One Foot in the Grave, released by indie K Records, just a few months after Mellow Gold. Beck’s next major label album arrived in 1996, and it pinned down Beck in the butterfly display that is the mass-culture mind. Odelay consolidated the image of Beck as a post-modern pop polyglot. Funky obscure samples, wild sonic collages, surreal lyrics — Odelay was a big, wonderful mess. It wriggled and winked. It was, and remains, Beck’s most commercially successful album.
The albums that followed, 1998’s Mutations and 1999’s randy phonk-bomb Midnite Vultures were so different from each other — the former trippy and muted, the latter brash and horny — that they shaded each other as extended genre goofs. Sucks for them, being artistes and all, but the persona that a musician inhabits when they have their biggest hit is hard to shake. Rivers Cuomo has spent almost ten years and six albums mechanically pumping out good time pop-rock jams. But he’s still the emotionally frustrated nerd from the cover of Weezer. Same deal with Beck. The pre-millennial culture took a picture, and it showed a shaggy-headed and opaque hipster with two turntables and a microphone.
Then, in 2002, Sea Change came out. In interviews at the time of the album’s release, Beck said that a break-up with his girlfriend had inspired the songs. He needn’t have. These then-new songs were so heartbroken that loss was the only lens through which they made sense. “The Golden Age,” “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” “Lost Cause” — all so beautifully sad. Beck’s father, David Campbell, adorned the music with sweeping, sighing string arrangements. (The extended coda of “Lonesome Tears” carries the whole song over a desolated canyon.) Nigel Godrich’s uncluttered production gave each acoustic guitar strum and lonesome harmonica wail the perfect sunset sheen. The lyrics were direct, with none of the freewheeling word-association vibe of the music that made Beck famous. (The “guess” in “Guess I’m Doing Fine” sums about eleventy-nine kinds of resignation.) Those lyrics were set to his sharpest melodies. The songs on Sea Change sounded like tracks Nick Drake should’ve recorded. They sounded like the songs you could find on early Bob Dylan albums when he was still willing to let his guard down a little. They also sounded seasonally apt, which is no small thing. Sea Change came out on September 24, 2002, and “Sea Change” should be used to describe “autumnal.” It shouldn’t be the other way around.
Most of all, the album’s songs sounded like a surprise. The “Loser” guy was capable of this? The guy who did James Brown-style jump-splits on stage was good for more than sonic quick-cuts and a good joke? My favorite Beck song before Sea Change was “Debra.” That’s the one where he sings, in a ball-vise falsetto, “I wouldn’t do you like that / Zankou Chicken.” This is the guy whose songs were crushing me now? Maybe I hadn’t been watching closely enough, but Sea Change showed me what Beck was capable of. I still think it’s the best melancholy album of the millennium. It still nods knowingly in my direction when I’m down. I need that every now and then. Sometimes I like to mope. If you love the album, I suspect you do too.
Beck has put out three albums since Sea Change: All of them are good and more fun; none of them sustain a mood with so much intensity. Maybe Sea Change was an emotional hiccup, an experiment not to be repeated. Maybe Beck was playing a role on the album that he didn’t want to play again. (He’s releasing his next album as sheet music, which isn’t exactly inviting much identification.) Or maybe Beck has never again gotten as low as he did back in when he wrote songs so bittersweet and bare as “The Golden Age.” That’d be good, actually. Beck already gave us Sea Change. One of those is enough to last a decade. One of those will last a very long time.