It's hard to be hip and ironic when you feel like crying. Rock iconoclast Beck Hansen learned this the hard way.
In November 1999 he released the bombastic funk storm Midnite Vultures, which he planned to follow up with a more straightforward Velvet Underground- and Stooges-flavored rock record. But after Beck finished touring, he broke up with his girlfriend of nine years, stylist Leigh Limon, and lapsed into a period of melancholy and introspection, during which he wrote the bleak and beautiful acoustic-based songs on his new album, Sea Change.
"They're honest and simple songs and they're trying to capture a universal experience that anybody goes through," Beck said, downplaying the specifics of his heartbreak. "It's taking something sad and trying to turn it into something that's hopeful at the end."
Unlike many of Beck's records, which feature oblique and somewhat absurd lyrics, Sea Change is filled with direct and heart-rending sentiment. On album opener "The Golden Age," he moans, "These days I barely get by/ I don't even try," and on "Guess I'm Doing Fine" he sings, "It's only lies that I'm living/ It's only tears that I'm crying/ It's only you that I'm losing."
Beck complements his weary words with an emotionally draining yet gorgeous blend of singer/songwriter earnestness, folk rock reflection and alt-country wistfulness. Yet as sorrowful as Sea Change sounds, Beck insists he didn't want the record to be depressing for listeners.
"I knew it had some sadness in it, but it's not an 'Oh, everything's terrible' kind of thing," he said. "It's an honest look at something, and ultimately the aesthetic of it was just something beautiful. That was the intention. It's not necessarily something that brings you down. People always used to tell me, 'Oh, that Joni Mitchell record or that Leonard Cohen record is so depressing,' but to me it kind of eases [your pain] and it just feels good. Those records are important, and I've always wanted to make one of those."
Four songs on Sea Change are embellished with lush strings arranged by Beck's dad, David Campbell, who has worked with Eric Clapton, Aerosmith and Alanis Morissette, among others. The singing cellos and weeping violas and violins stand out dramatically against many of the simple musical rhythms.
"We were constantly stripping the instruments down to make it more simple, but we wanted orchestra to dominate," Beck said. "In pop music I always hear the strings and orchestras being used as padding around the song, and I always feel like if you're going to use an orchestra, use the weight of it. I want to hear the orchestra. I want to feel it."
Beck and his backing band — guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., and drummers James Gatson and Joey Waronker — recorded Sea Change with producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Pavement) over a two-month period starting in March at Los Angeles' Ocean Way Studios. In order to capture the immediacy of the material, the artists worked quickly and spontaneously, frequently laying second takes of songs to disc, much as they did with Beck's 1998 folk-rock LP, Mutations, which Sea Change most closely resembles. Toward the end of the session, Beck had to work even a little more quickly than he planned.
"We kind of ran out of time at the end. Joni Mitchell was coming in to do her record, but she works very civilized and she takes the weekend off, so we were sneaking in on the weekends and trying to finish. Most of it was recorded live, just all of the musicians in a room, then we added a few bells and bird sounds in the background later."
Since releasing the 1994 low-fi rock/hip-hop album Mellow Gold, Beck has become known for penning artsy and sardonic rock songs with slightly absurd lyrics. So it's kind of ironic to find that the irony expert has always felt more in touch with his more insular side.
"I started out playing acoustic and folk music as more of a songwriter," he explained. "The hip-hop songs and the other things were always experiments. But then the experiment records got more attention. So what I've ended up doing is just continuing to make both kinds of work."
Now that he's got Sea Change out of his system, Beck plans to change yet again. He'd like to start working on his long-delayed garage-y rock record, and he's got several other projects in the works. Last year he recorded a batch of tracks in San Francisco with Gorillaz producer Dan the Automator that he hopes to release in the future. He's also sitting on a bunch of material he recorded with the Dust Brothers, and he's worked with Timbaland, whom he plans to reunite with in the studio soon. In addition he's worked with Japanese sound sculptor Cornelius and collaborated on a track for William Orbit called "Real Good," which features Latin fuzz guitar over percolating dance beats and will likely appear on Orbit's next record.
"I'm really taking advantage of working with different people now," Beck said. "I'm just enjoying the process and seeing what happens. My plan is to put out seven or eight records over the next five years. The thing I like about that is it allows you to develop and you can make mistakes and experiment because you get another chance in six months."
Beck added that creating large amounts of music at one time allows songwriters to latch into a groove, and that touring can be the greatest theft of creativity.
"It's important to get a momentum going," he said. "A lot of people make a record and they're off for three years and they come back and they're like, 'How do I write a song again?' Look at the Stones. They were continually working in the '60s and '70s. All the bands from that era were making a new record every six months. I think when you finish a record you feel like you're at the point where you could just keep going. You feel like you're loosening up. That's the perfect time to go back in and make another record."