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Lost pause 

Beck backs up to get serious

"I'm tired of fighting/Fighting for a lost cause," laments the forlorn folk singer who sighs his way through Sea Change, a somber and subdued record that made many music critics' Best of 2002 lists. That the folk singer in question is none other than Beck Hansen -- the tow-headed boy wunderkind who sidestepped the grating novelty appeal of his hit single "Loser" to find himself anointed as one of his generation's alleged geniuses -- is both remarkable and telling.

Remarkable, because Sea Change, a breakup album in the finest tradition of the genre, exists on a plane as far removed as possible from the junk-culture feeding frenzy of Beck's most revered works.

Telling, because his embrace of the standard sensitive singer/songwriter persona strongly suggests a rejection of the herky-jerky pop-cultural collages that have heretofore been his bread and butter. Inherent in Beck's acknowledgment that a bitter romantic disintegration requires a different set of skills than those showcased on 1994's Mellow Gold and 1996's Odelay, is a tacit admission that the cut-and-paste, garage-sale aesthetic he employed to winsome effect on such songs as "Where It's At" and "Beercan" simply isn't up to the task of cathartic self-expression -- of art.

So why aren't the goateed and pierced legions who've made Beck an unlikely yet credible commercial artist, smarting from this apparent insult? After all, if Sea Change represents Beck rejecting his trademarked filterings of Gen-X touchstones into a D.I.Y. folk-art patchwork, then doesn't it also represent a slap in the face to those who saw in that patchwork the product of genius?

It ain't necessarily so, and the Beck Army certainly isn't looking at it that way. In fact, the consensus seems to be that the plaintive ditties on Sea Change only prove what the highly charged non sequiturs of, say, "Devils Haircut" have long suggested -- that Sea Change and Mellow Gold are both of a piece, parts of a broader tapestry of expression. Making Beck Hansen, in short, no less than the direct musical descendent of Bob Dylan.

Believe it or not, there's credible evidence to support such a hypothesis. Beck's alchemical transmutations of nonsensical lead balloons into gold nuggets can trace their lineage through the loopy ellipticisms of Captain Beefheart and Robyn Hitchcock right to the feet of Dylan, whose ability to mine eloquent and cohesive epiphanies from ridiculous imagery introduced the concept of intelligent songwriting as a kind of exercise in automatic writing.

But despite the occasional exception (such as the soulful "Nobody's Fault But My Own" from 1998's Mutations), it's hard to make a case for a level of lyrical cohesion to match Dylan's. "She's alone in the new pollution" may lend itself to a myriad of possible meanings, but Beck's ratio of nonsense-to-truth simply isn't there. Dylan's lyrical abstractions serve as metaphors for more objective truths; Beck's are mere pastiches, part of a post-modern sensibility in which the mixing, not the message, is the whole point.

The Beck-as-Dylan argument rings true when it recognizes the existence of art in Beck's musical artifice. But it's far less convincing when positing that Sea Change's "Lonesome Tears" or "Paper Tiger" and Odelay's "Devils Haircut" or "The New Pollution" are cut from the same artistic cloth.

Yes, Sea Change underlines Beck's long-standing habit of genre opportunism, though Beck isn't simply appropriating earnest folk-singerdom into his crazy-quilt repertoire; he's traded in the latter for the former, at least temporarily, which is certainly his right. But it puts him in an unenviable position: If he then abandons the earnest approach to return to the cross-cut style he's made famous, he risks the appearance (not to mention the actual possibility) of desperation. Having shed one skin for another, only to retreat to the safety of the first, Beck could undermine any credibility he's earned with either approach. Talk about a lost cause.

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