by Sheri Boggs

If you've ever wanted the perfect soundtrack for your post-breakup, freshly dumped blues, this is it. That musical rarity -- a song cycle that's actually hip and smart - Sea Change consists of 12 plaintive tracks that travel from the point of a lover's screeching-tires departure to the restrained optimism of Moving On. Written in the wake of Beck's breakup with his longtime girlfriend, such songs as "The Golden Age," "Already Dead" and "Paper Tiger" offer witness to the musician's more introspective side. In fact, folks looking for the booty-shakin' grooves and aggressive pillow talk of 1999's Midnite Vultures had best keep walking; there's none of that sort of thing here.

Which is not to say Beck has eschewed boyish sex appeal altogether. Instead, he uses his surprisingly deep baritone to growl despondency gently. One pictures him curled up in a fake fur bean bag chair, shirtless, disconsolately eating Oreos and reading old Velvet Underground album covers while wiping tears away. Teaming up with his old Mutations producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead), Beck Hansen recaptures elements of that earlier album's quieter and darker sound while charting new terrain.

Sea Change lies somewhere between an alt-country effort and an homage to the British singer/songwriters of the early 1970s. Where in the past Beck hid behind an impressive wall of electronica, the opening track "The Golden Age" leads off with just a guitar and Beck's easy, forlorn vocals -- which is appropriate considering Beck's humble beginnings as an L.A. street corner folk musician. The mood continues into "Paper Tiger," a pleasing nod to Serge Gainsbourg's "Melody," and the one track that most successfully carries echoes of Midnite Vultures' sonic excess, complete with synthesized strings and cinematic backdrops of percussion. There are hints of old Nick Drake and even of John Lennon on the Indian banjo and Glockenspiel-infused "Sunday Sun." And while we're bandying about the comparisons, it should be noted that Hank Williams is a melancholy and welcome presence on the sparkling-lights-in-the-distance, highway blues of "Lost Cause."

Atmospheric, discordant and highly personal, Sea Change is a previously unseen version of Beck. Bitter without wallowing, romantic without a glimmer of sentimentality, he offers himself unfettered by the self-consciousness and distance that permeate his earlier efforts. In so doing, he's made what just might be his best album yet.

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