One person's "romantic" is another person's "poor bastard who's been dumped." He's the man who cries for no reason during Coffee-mate ads, who strolls blankly down the boardwalks and wakes up with nothing but sand in his sheets, who takes his car on lengthy detours through dollar-store boroughs just to avoid going home. He's a late-night infomercial watcher. A Lucky Strike smoker. A record collector. A Richard Farina reader. A lover of clichés. In fact, he's a cliché himself. And if this sad sack is a loser, too, he might just be Beck.
There's a prophetic sample on Beck's first Mellow Gold single that warned "Things are gonna change, I can feel it," to which Beck replied, "I don't believe you!" Well, it's time to start believing. After five albums filled with buck-toothed truck drivers, puking ferris-wheel jockeys, crack-smoking defenestrators, copulating robots, and big-bzootied Hollywood freaks, Beck has undergone a Sea Change. You might have spotted earlier signs of Beck's blue period in 1998's sadly lyrical Mutations. But the zinger-flinging king of the hot-dog dance has now officially become one sad, sappy sissyneck. If you hadn't heard in high school study hall, Beck broke up with his longtime girlfriend Leigh Limon just before he put together this new album. That kind of miserable experience can drive a man to date Winona Ryder--and then, when the fit of panic subsides, deny that he's dating her. Love bites, but reality bites harder.
Beck would probably enjoy that cliché--Sea Change (Geffen/Interscope) is full of them. Dude cries lonesome tears, feels the moonlight on his skin, holds onto nothing, can't throw his chains away, and tries to hang his hopes high. Roses grow in graveyards, bluebirds sit outside windows, snakes slither in a pit of souls, and days fade to black. And the whole time, Beck is transposing his voice down to an eerie baritone, like a cassette player that's running out of batteries. He leads the string section to Leonard Cohen heights, segues into a Bacharach piano hook, finds a Serge Gainsbourg swagger in his song tempos, and pulls out a slide-guitar salute to Hank Williams--all in the name of mourning his ex. On first listen, you find yourself thinking that with tired tropes like these, it's a good thing love means never having to say you're sorry.
Breakups throughout history have been exemplified by such banalities: Sometimes they're the only sounds and images universal enough to connect lonely individuals with some real or imagined collective whole. The bluebird at Beck's window has sung in so many songs before that it has become an archetype, a reified history of all the musicians--Charlie Parker, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Scott--who have evoked its name in the past. As the grandson of a Fluxus artist, Beck is nothing if not a sculptor of found objects and ideas, a mash-up musician who makes collages from forgotten hip-hop records, trash-can soul junk, and faux-protest-singer folk. During a recent Minneapolis performance, he even admitted that he learned to play the blues from watching beer commercials. The idea that he's a lyrical scavenger as well isn't too hard to imagine. For a guy who is known for name-checking Cheez Whiz, MTV, and JC Penney, bluebirds and sunlight and love have all the elasticity of a pop-culture reference.
But when you don't believe in big concepts like Love and Hope--and Beck seems not to--natural symbols become absurd. Just as absurd, perhaps, as the thought of a smirking, irreverent slacker composing an album full of earnest love songs. When the desert that a singer evokes can no longer be imagined as some romantic English Patient backdrop, it's just sand. And the rose that Beck finds growing in the graveyard is just a rose. Or, as Albert Camus wrote in The Stranger, "At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise."
The Stranger suggests that if every life eventually results in death, then life is senseless. The same might be said about relationships and their transience. But that doesn't render either one meaningless. "We don't have to worry/Life goes where it does," Beck sings on "Round the Bend," sounding not unlike The Stranger's Meursault. The guitar notes climb and fall repetitiously behind the musician. They're the same chords that have probably been played by Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Scott Walker. But somehow, in spite of the fact that they've been used so many times before, they're still the best chords you can imagine. If these things are going to change, as Mellow Gold once predicted, we don't want to believe it either.