YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fall Preview / Pop Music

Beck the Writer Takes a Bow

After outings in R&B and folk/hip-hop, the artist returns with a highly personal album taking cues from the lonesome poetry of Hank Williams

September 15, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN

There's a basketball hoop on the garage of Beck's two-story house in Silver Lake, but he warns against trying to drive hard for a layup. The driveway slants down, which means you'll end up crashing into the garage door.

Another problem with the hoop, which he had installed shortly after he moved in, is that the garage is so close to the street that the ball can easily bounce off the rim and roll down the hillside avenue.

The restrictions force him to be cautious when acting out any Michael Jordan fantasies, but there's nothing timid about Beck's music. In fact, some industry observers feel Beck's last album, 1999's "Midnite Vultures," was a sign that he is a bit too adventurous..

The album, in which the folk/hip-hop wizard behind 1996's Grammy-winning "Odelay" album switched into the role of a modern-day soul man, was generally cheered by critics. Radio programmers and most of "Odelay's" fans, however, just shook their heads in confusion.

Was Beck making fun of R&B (absolutely not) or was he just out of sync with public expectations and taste (possibly)?

Whatever, the frightfully prolific musician has been largely silent since "Vultures," suggesting his confidence might have been shaken by the experience.

The 32-year-old singer-songwriter did go through a period of uncertainty before returning with a new album. The delay, though, had nothing to do with the reaction to "Vultures," which, he points out, was far better received in Europe than "Odelay."

He simply felt the songs on the new "Sea Change" album, due Sept. 24 from Geffen Records, were uncomfortably personal. They dealt with the break-up of a longtime relationship with clothing designer Leigh Limon, and he worried that the sometimes painfully introspective songs might be seen as an exercise in self-pity. It was almost two years before he was ready to commit the music to disc.

"People have been asking for years, 'Do you ever write things that are more personal?' and I always said, 'Yeah, I do,' but I resisted recording those songs," Beck says in his living room overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir.

"When I started out, I had this idea about making music for other people to enjoy. I didn't want it to be all about me. After writing these songs, I also worried that they would be seen as a plea for sympathy or something. I needed time to make sure I could look at them clearly."

Beck felt comfortable with the songs by last fall, but his plans to go into the studio were interrupted by Sept. 11. He worried this time that the dark, melancholy themes might be too solemn.

In February, however, Beck went into the studio with producer Nigel Godrich, who had worked with him on 1998's "Mutations" album and with Radiohead on 1997's "OK Computer." Recording at Beck's 16-hour-a-day pace, they completed the basic tracks in just two weeks.

"I think I saw that the album wouldn't just be some meaningless ego thing, that the themes were universal," Beck says. "That's when the record started to make sense."

His decision was wise--"Sea Change" may just be the most compelling album so far this year, rivaled only by Eminem's "The Eminem Show."

The album arrives at what may be a pivotal time of reappraisal in pop music--a time when rock 'n' roll is returning to its passionate roots after years of drab, anonymous sounds and when, ideally, songwriting may be making a comeback in a wider pop arena after so much emphasis on producer-created hits. (See story, Page 9.)

Of all these new singer-songwriter packages, Beck's may have the greatest influence on the tone of pop music because the Los Angeles native is the kind of artist that others take their cue from. The fact that he hasn't been primarily associated with the singer-songwriter movement may cause heads to turn even more.

His "Sea Change" album is a work of remarkable power whose best moments speak of such emotions as isolation and disillusionment, with the economy, honesty and beauty of Hank Williams, the great country singer and songwriter who was a key inspiration on the album.

In the opening song, the country-tinged "The Golden Age," Beck describes being so thrown off stride that you seek anything, even just the cool night air through the car window, to make you feel alive. "These days I barely get by," he sings in a voice barely above a whisper. "I don't even try."

Things get darker from there, but they eventually start brightening. As is so often the case with music, there is something healing and hopeful about hearing someone's struggle, even if it's just from marveling at the way a performer can turn anguish into art.

Beck has made other traditional singer-songwriter albums, including "Mutations" and 1994's "One Foot in the Grave," but they were presented as career sidesteps and lacked the straightforwardness of the new one. His "official" albums have been the ones with more contemporary settings, from 1994's "Mellow Gold," which had his breakthrough hit, "Loser," to "Vultures."

Los Angeles Times Articles