Guest critique continues! This generous contribution, Metacritique’s first review of a music review, comes from Tess Lynch.
One of the loneliest feelings in the world is being isolated from your peers in matters of taste. In this corner: you, uncool, refusing to enjoy Interpol. In that corner: they, having a laugh, having the fun kind of one-night stands, drinking a shot of Jagermeister in the backseat of a Prius, bounding into the Wiltern in a big herd of happy, music-loving fanaticism. A week later, on a Friday, you’re all at dinner.
“I love how, when I listen to Interpol, it’s like I’ve done a bunch of blow? Even when I haven’t done blow?”
“Man, I was sitting in my studio apartment last Tuesday and listening to Interpol and all of a sudden I felt like I could hear the intensity of urban life being played out on my eardrums, and then I was like, why did I always conflate these guys with The Killers when they are like so totally different?”
There’s a moment there where you could say it, couldn’t you? You could pipe up and mention that actually, now that the topic has arisen, Interpol does nothing for you, not even “Slow Hands,” not even the painfully moody ones that really can make you feel like you’re on a lot of blow.
Toward the end of high school I traveled in an emotional circle. “Intensity” was a common conversational topic. Often, when something “intense” happened, such as a pop quiz in pre-calculus or a sudden awareness of the seemingly rapid march of time towards semi-formal (“too intense!”), my friends and I would skulk home after school to (separately, or together, depending on the day of the week) pout in our rooms while listening to dismal tunes and being snotty to our parents. After graduation, we continued this tradition; handily, I stumbled upon the Red House Painters and burned their whole catalogue into my sad little brain during freshman year of college.
Beck’s album Sea Change, released in 2002, arrived right on time. I ordered it through Amazon. I didn’t bother to read any reviews before I bought it, because how on earth could it be anything but awesome? For one thing, I loved Beck. Beck spoke to me in a personal way, which I later found out is a sentiment shared by most people who like to smoke pot and get amused by lines like “take me home in my elevator bones!” and hand claps. I also loved to be miserable, and Sea Change was rumored to be a very effective downer.
A friend who’d downloaded a copy told me, “I listen to it when I get in bed, and when I fall asleep, I’m like, crying.” I was pretty jealous of that. That’s a real record, right there, I thought. When I got my copy, I climbed up on my dirty futon, got in the fetal position and thought about my on-again, off-again relationship, and how sad it was to be a mortal human, and the relatively short lifespan of my cat. Meanwhile, Pitchfork reviewer Will Bryant was probably waiting with a similar level of anticipation for Beck to deliver his charismatic take on the blues, on lo-fi, or like maybe a kind of Gothic Roxy-Music-like drama. I don’t know if his friends were liking it, as mine were. He probably had extremely music-savvy friends, working at Pitchfork in 2002. But most of my friends were absolutely nuts about Sea Change. I felt like I was missing something. And then I happened upon this review, which, though it gave the album a halfway-respectable 6.9, expressed the same disappointment as I’d had for it:
A cloud of mind-numbing melancholy hangs over Sea Change, from the world-weary grandpa-Beck voice he employs on most of the tracks to its unfailingly morose lyrics. “These days I barely get by/ I don’t even try,” Beck sings in “The Golden Age”, and that’s just the tip of the jagged iceberg that looms ever larger in Sea Change’s periscope. It’s obvious just from perusing the song titles— “Lonesome Tears,” “End of the Day,” “Already Dead,” “Lost Cause”— that the 2002 model Beck is one sad sack (and it’s impossible not to armchair quarterback which of Beck’s celebrity girlfriends inspired such gut-wrenching bile). But though the songs are jam-packed with typical Beck imagery (stray dogs, moonlight drives, diamonds as kaleidoscopes) there’s very little here that measures up to the eloquence of “She is all, and everything else is small.”
It’s nice to hear the difference between poignant sadness and ponderous, ponderous depression articulated so well. When listening to Sea Change, now perhaps even more so than in 2002, try imagining the following scenario: you are in the car, with your least favorite relative, driving on a freeway in the desert. The previous night, you smoked three packs of Camel Reds in a casino, where you lost $100. Now you are in the worst traffic you’ve ever seen. You’re really thirsty. And the only CD you have in the car is Sea Change.
Bryant goes on:
Too often Beck saddles these songs with half-baked cliches and easy rhymes: “sky” always rhymes with “die”, “care” always rhymes with “there”. He doesn’t even sound like himself on many of Sea Change’s more paint-by-numbers cuts. On “Guess I’m Doing Fine” Beck emotes in an unnatural croak that’s likely the product of a digitally decelerated vocal track, but he mostly just sounds constipated. Likewise with the karaoke-honed Gordon Lightfoot impression Beck turns in on the hoary “End of the Day”: “It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before/ But it still kills me like it did before.”
The brilliance is that Bryant never exploits this album, as perhaps I would do if I were in a particularly nasty mood. The real problem with Sea Change is that it could have been so much better, not that it’s a really terrible album. Bryant reminds us of 1998’s Mutations, by drawing parallels between the missteps in that (earlier) album and Sea Change, but the real sadness of the whole thing is that the whole album seemed so lazy, especially on the heels of Midnite Vultures, which came between Mutations and Sea Change and was totally awesome. There was no good reason why Beck should have produced this version of what the album could have been:
On Sea Change, Beck sounds intentionally world-weary, but it’s the songs themselves that sound labored. Is it no longer enough for Beck to write profound, genre-bending tunes that stand on their own? Does he really need the crutch of suffocating overproduction and bold strokes of orchestration to shock us into caring again? Two turntables and a microphone, man!
‘Cause there was a time when Beck didn’t need Nigel Godrich to space out his white-collar blues. A winter spent in Calvin Johnson’s basement, an afternoon spent with a beatbox and a slide guitar in a friend’s living room was all he needed to pluck otherworldly songs from the fertile Beckscape of desolated views, crazy towns, lost causes and stolen boats. Given how much soul-searching obviously went into this record, it’s distressing how little soul the finished product actually has.
Seven years later, I see Sea Change in a slightly different light. “Paper Tiger,” the one track I (and Will Bryant was, too) was kinda into at the time, wore out a few mix CD’s in. Even its dynamic jangly-ness, relative to the rest of the album, at least, seems oppressive now. Why?
It’s hard to trust an artist to maintain whatever it is that you like about him or her when you can’t pinpoint exactly what that is. Beck seems to project effortlessness: you knew that his taste was better than yours, you trusted him, and you didn’t have to watch him sweat while he impressed you. I would not have thought that Beck’s sadface was one I was never meant to see. I would have thought that it, like the personas he wore for Odelay and Mellow Gold, would be something that would show me a new and dynamic side of sadness! Like a tear that becomes a diamond!
Instead, I felt like I was under a velvet lead jacket, its softness lulling me into accepting the dentist’s drill of despair. It was not terrible, but it made me feel terrible. And I hid this for years from the sensitive scenesters I call my friends, but Will Bryant made me bold enough to come clean.