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Beck took a low offer from DGC (now Interscope), because it allowed him to record on the side with independent labels and gave him complete artistic freedom. As his subsequent albums bounded between the accessible (Odelay, Mellow Gold) and the avant-garde (Stereopathetic Soulmanure, Mutations), artistic freedom and experimentation became his shtick. It's an inherited trait. His grandfather Al Hansen was a member of the European artists' collective Fluxus, which specialized in Dadaist performance pieces. But Beck draws inspiration from contemporary sources too. "Brando was in some movie"--1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau--"where he's in a white gown, white face paint, and he's wearing a hat that's an ice bucket, and there's a midget dressed exactly like him on his shoulder," he says. "And he's acting like it's Shakespeare! But it threw me. He's fearless, and I think every artist should embrace a certain amount of that."
Beck has produced a few face-paint moments of his own over the years, and they have mostly come when he has toyed with acoustic material. Mutations, the album most similar to Sea Change, has several songs that sound exotic, clever and conspicuously weird, as if Beck were doing an emotional experiment rather than summoning actual feelings. ("Puritans stare, their souls are fluorescent/The skin of a robot vibrates with pleasure" went one particularly opaque Mutations lyric.) But Sea Change feels distilled from real tears, and the sonic intensity is helped in part by Beck's physical maturation. His singing voice has got significantly deeper. "Before we recorded," says Godrich, "we listened to Mutations, and his voice sounded like Mickey Mouse. His range has dropped. Now when he opens his mouth, a canyonesque vibration comes out. It's quite remarkable. He has amazing tone."
He is also singing some of the most devastating lyrics of his career. Breakups are to singers what World War II is to historians, but Beck distinguishes himself with lines like "Your sorry eyes cut through the bone/They make it hard to leave you alone... Baby you're a lost cause" and "Seen the end of the day come too late/Seen the love you had turning into hate/Had to act like I didn't even care/But I did so I got stranded standing there." As failed-relationship albums go, it's nearly as good as U2's Achtung Baby, although Sea Change's uniformity of pace and tone causes it to flag a bit near the end. ("We recorded a song about a border-patrol cop that sort of sounds like a Delta blues video game," says Beck. "But, you know, it didn't make a lot of sense for this record.")
Listeners will no doubt cling to Sea Change as Beck's most personal album, though he says, "I've always challenged the idea that serious material is more indicative of who a person is. I don't think the laughing side of a human being is any less them than the side where they're depressed." Beck has a tough time staying serious, even when performing his new songs. During a brief tour in August, he alternated between ballads, covers, requests from the audience and improvised riffs about Axl Rose. "I may ruin my career tonight," he giddily told the audience. Yes--and that's why they came.