Beck Says, "Let the Golden Age Begin!"

Sea Change, Beck's late-afternoon, mid-tempo reverie of an album, harkens back to the great old days of painstaking production, carefully drawn arrangements, and a concern for--and love of--sound and musical textures for their own sakes. Tempi are languid, notes are caressed, and gaping atmospheric spaces welcome listeners willing to be drawn in.

While the sumptuous sonic and musical concept is far removed from his two-turntables-and-a-microphone collage days, live-in-studio references to classic records abound. You'll hear Beck's iPod mind sampling favorite tunes and layering freshly made elements from them into the musical mixes. A Led Zep string reference here, a Mike Garson "Alladin Sane"-era Bowie piano there, even lessons learned from George Martin's arrangements for The Beatles. And always lurking in the mix is Nick Drake, especially on the chilling "Round the Bend." "Sunday Sun" sounds like Beck's tribute to Brian Wilson.

There's an unmistakable melancholic L.A. vibe to Sea Change, as the late-afternoon gold runs from a comfortable glow to an unnerving pre-eve desolation. If you've lived there or still do, you know exactly what the light and air catch as the sun sinks, and Beck captures the city's beauty and the chilly isolation brilliantly in the sweeping ascending violins and digging celli, accented by producer Nigel Godrich's always tasteful electronica.

I've been told that much of the multi-instrument recording at Ocean Way was done live (as in the old days) instead of being individually tracked. There's an organic completeness to the production and a sense of communication between the musicians that makes it sound that way, and you can almost imagine the core group--including Joey Waronker and two Jellyfish alumni, Roger Manning and the hugely underrated Jason Falkner--leaving the darkness of the studio for breaks on the bright, bleak Sunset Boulevard sidewalk. (Falkner's brilliant solo albums on Elektra and the Sony-issued Bedtime with The Beatles are well worth finding.)

Detractors complaining that the album is "boring" are simply not allowing themselves to be drawn into its atmospheric spell (or they're listening on boomboxes). You need a system that can communicate the textures, explore the depths, and reveal the harmonic and spatial complexities embedded within the cinematic arrangements. Listening to this production as an MP3 would be like eating a gourmet meal with a head cold.

As for Beck's vocal performance, he occasionally strives to reach beyond his emotional and vocal range, delivering an empty monotone where he intends a subtle communication. But that's easily overlooked as he connects more than he misses, and his stretching on the vocals adds its own drama.

It's a shame that such a brilliant sonic production, probably all analog, will never see vinyl. It's Beck's first album not to be released on wax, but there is a superb-sounding, ultra-dynamic SACD that reveals layers of information, low-level detail, and especially top and bottom extension--extension that the compressed, dry CD misses. Compare the CD and the SACD and you'll swear you're hearing a different recording. The sound rating is for the SACD: the standard CD gets a seven!

Unfortunately, the SACD is not a hybrid disc, so you'll need an SACD-equipped player to listen, and the standard CD if you want to listen in the car. Isn't that special? (Or you can burn a CD-R from the SACD player's analog outputs and still get better sound than the commercial CD, for reasons I don't understand.)

Also included on the SACD is a reasonably tasteful multichannel mix by Elliot Scheiner, who sidesteps the usual multichannel pitfall of larding up the center channel with the vocals and uses subtlety in spreading the musical elements around the room. Scheiner is most effective at placing Godrich's electronica in space, giving what are essentially subtle accents their proper due. For me, though, hearing stuff behind and to the sides is no great shakes, and I prefer the two-channel mix.

As Beck sings in the opener, "Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin." Sea Change is a finely crafted, thoughtful, and enduring album. Highly recommended.