An unrelated Popular thread prompted some reflections on my favourite Beck album (although judging by the stream of Morning Phase, it could have a challenger).

I didn’t quite get Odelay at the time of its release—as critically-acclaimed albums after popular breakthrough hits went, it was no The Bends—but didn’t mind it, and picked up Beck’s next one. That’s when he clicked for me, and I still rate Mutations, Midnite Vultures and Sea Change highly. The last, in particular, was an amazing album. I’ve stuck with him through later albums as a result, even though they’ve been patchy; I wanted to like Guero and Modern Guilt more than I did (I liked “Chemtrails”, at least). The Information is still pretty good; his work with Nigel Godrich tends to be my favourite.

Sea Change is one of those albums that I listened to so intently that I’ve let it lie fallow for a few years, and now have to give it another listen to be able to talk about specifics. But it wasn’t really about the specifics for me, it was the mood and the timing. Sea Change feels to me like the definitive post-9/11 album—I know it’s about breaking up with his girlfriend, but it captured some complex feelings about America at that moment, a waking-up-from-a-dream, the dream being the optimistic late ’90s Web-gold-rush years (which Midnite Vultures in its own way represented). If the new one is Morning Phase, this was his mourning phase, and a year after September 11 that was still all too relevant to all too many of us.

It feels trite to talk about my personal response to 9/11 to explain why I admire a break-up album, but I’m playing it in the background now, and was just floored by the transition from “Lonesome Tears” to “Lost Cause”, a masterpiece of sequencing—and I’m poring through the lyrics to try to justify the connection, and hardly have to go past “Golden Age”: These days I barely get by / I don’t even try. But Exhibit A has to be “Paper Tiger”: No more ashes to ashes / No more cinders from the sky... O deserts down below us / And storms up above... We’re just holding on to nothing / To see how long nothing lasts.

I spent far too much time in the few years after 9/11 consumed by online commentary on it all, trying to make sense of what had happened, what we’d lost, and what was being done in its name, and remember being absolutely wrenched by it every anniversary for years—the worst precursor to a northern winter imaginable, to someone still getting used to northern winters. I’d moved to the other side of the world in 2001 in a spirit of optimism and possibility, and almost immediately it became a struggle to maintain that spirit. I don’t think I really got over that until years later. And it’s possible that I haven’t listened to Sea Change since then, until right now.

Jesus, “Round the Bend”—it isn’t just Beck, it’s Nigel Godrich, whose production on the album is staggering—the strings with their echoes of Samuel Barber, the discordant piano flourishes he’d developed with Radiohead. And here a couple of tracks later is “Sunday Sun”—There’s no other ending / Sunday sun / Yesterdays are ending / Sunday sun—collapsing into wreckage in its final seconds. And then “Little One” kicks in, again perfectly sequenced: Go to sleep / We’re so tired now / All together in a snakepit of souls...

I can understand why it isn’t everybody’s music. It isn’t even everyday music. But for me it was one of the albums of the decade, most definitely. More so than other albums I rated more highly at the time.

21 February 2014 · Music