Sea Change

Beck has always been surprising. Ever since his 1994 slacker manifesto "Loser," he has confounded listeners with abstract lyrics, abrupt stylistic shifts, and wacky studio tricks. Each new Beck record brings a rich amalgam of sounds and ideas, making him one of the most interesting artists in modern pop. As his catalog has grown, though, a pattern has emerged. For every fun "party" record, Beck releases a somber "morning after" record -- i.e., he followed the kitschy breakthrough Mellow Gold with the folksy One Foot in the Grave, and chased the smash hit Odelaywith the mopey Mutations.

Beck's latest full-length conforms to this model, shifting from the nasty, exuberant funk of 1999's Midnight Vultures to Sea Change's slow, melancholic balladry, answering the last album's swagger and silliness with sincerity and remorse. Vulture's bravado -- "Like a fruit that's ripe for a pickin'/ I wanna do you like that Zankou Chicken" -- leads to Change's confession that "It's only lies that I'm living/ It's only tears that I'm crying/ It's only you that I'm losing."

Sadly, such reflection easily bleeds into cliché, and many of the lyrics on Sea Change are plain and tiresome. Further exposed by the minimal instrumentation, lines like "There's a bluebird at the window" and "Seen the end of the day come too soon" sound leftover or borrowed, as if they were collected at an open-mike reading. These dull passages and Beck's new, deeper vocal style make him sound like a weary and rambling Gordon Lightfoot.

Despite these problems, Sea Change still shines, thanks to the trippy production by Radiohead (and Mutations) engineer Nigel Godrich. Save for a few noisy crescendos, the songs are spare, built on a plain beat and an acoustic guitar and occasionally brightened by a gentle piano or a reverberating lap steel. The best tune, "Paper Tiger," swings in a druggie haze, propelled by deep stabs of disco strings and sharp electric guitar. Numbers like this, however subdued, fulfill Beck's promise of surprise, and should keep his fans entranced until his next party record.

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