The reams of ecstatic reviews that followed the release of Beck's despondent Sea Change are all deserved, except for one major caveat: The disc's sea of salty tears is no truer an artistic expression than the web of artifice Beck once spun to earn his fame. If anything, Beck's confessional outpouring in these uniquely troubled and uncertain times feels a bit deceitful.
That might seem like a contradiction, but then, Sea Change is built on contradiction: The widely published rumor is that Beck was moved to bare his soul after having discovered the unfaithfulness of his girlfriend, yet the subtle and keenly detailed Sea Change isn't a product of emotional despondency, but rational handicraft. There's nothing wrong with that -- the albums by John Lennon, Nick Drake, and Alex Chilton that it recalls were also masterfully constructed portraits of helpless despair. But for Beck, this move marks a retreat from a sophisticated level of honesty about his artifice, a level never quite reached by Drake, Lennon, and Chilton, not to mention legions of lesser heartstring pluckers lamenting their losses in coffeehouses and bars before and since.
In Beck's early days, he offered a glorious corrective to the pitfalls of self-pity, transforming the loser 'tude of Generation X into a sardonic badge of pride. But now he moans and mumbles in the style he once half-mocked, sounding like a cross between Eddie Vedder and the frog-voiced dude in Crash Test Dummies. To add insult to his sense of cosmic personal injury, Beck shortchanges one of his greatest talents -- putting surprising words together -- for the comforts of banal imagery ("There's a blue bird at my window," etc). In short, it's definitely worth going to the show to bathe in his flood of tears, but just don't be surprised if the crocodile grins.