Beck’s ‘Sea Changes’ yields an accomplished singer-songwriter

Mike Schoeck

Beck Hansen makes a swift rendezvous back to his pre-“Mutations” hey-day of folk with his fifth major LP, “Sea Changes,” released Sept. 24 on Geffen Records.
With Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and the artwork of four separate album designs for “Sea Changes” by photographer Autumn DeWilde, Beck’s eclectic return to roots music is feasible considering his early recordings.
Recent sightings alongside Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams on tribute records to folkies Gram Parsons and Hank Williams have yielded Beck’s entourage with Neil Young and John Mellencamp at the Farm Aid and Bridge School Benefits.
Not to mention his alleged acid-trip at this summer’s Coachella Music and Arts Festival was backed by none other than neo-psychedelics’ Flaming Lips.
Already one of the most lauded faces in rock, 32 year old Beck has traversed lo-fi indie rock, folk and funk-soul with ease.
“Sea Changes” is a callback to his early recordings, from 1994’s slacker spastic “Mellow Gold” to 1998’s “Mutations,” with some room left for electronics as ample attention goes to the Californian’s crooning voice, rich and sorrowful.
“Put your hands on the wheel / Let the Golden Age begin / Let the window down / Feel the moonlight on your skin,” goes the opening verse of Beck’s “Golden Age,” tinged with the alt-country iridescence and twinkling effects of crooners like Ryan Adams and the mellow shuffle of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
“Guess I’m Doing Fine” is another subtle alt-country ditty in which Beck’s harmonious tenor chops resonate much more with mystique and boldness than over quirky electronic and funk noodles on previous records.
With just his voice and a laid back folk shuffle with steel guitars, “Sea Changes” is Beck’s most tactful release to date, especially as a supposed solo artist, though amply backed by indie rock drummer Joey Waronker (Elliott Smith), guitarist Smokey Hormel (recent Johnny Cash), keyboardist Roger Manning (Imperial Drag) and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Air, Tori Amos).
With his blend of worrisome tenor vocals, guitar, harmonica and limited samples, Beck pulls off a life achieved record in only nine years without a slight strain despite having what has been called the “eternal high-school look.”
It is the worrisome and bold dimension to this new Beck that sets him apart from any other as a true singer-songwriter.
The “Heart on sleeve” aesthetic motif is apparent here, as Beck can hollow himself down in tune and titles like “Lost Cause,” “Already Dead” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine.”
“Round the Bend” is a perfect scenario. With a synthesized drone lead of strings by none other than father David Campbell, Beck enters and explores solitude and lost love prospects like vintage Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley and even “Plastic Ono”-era John Lennon.
With psychedelic album art on assorted cover work, it is tough to tell if this is just one bad trip for Beck or an artistic culmination into hurt, sorrow and pensiveness as characteristic of 1970’s acts who tone down, as solo acts, to explore melancholy.
Sounding the more elder and reflective compared to previous genre-bending records “Odelay” and “Midnight Vultures,” Beck is now among the likes of cronies and geezers alike, including Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a bulk of 1970’s folk-country rock crossovers in the singer-songwriter niche.