"I'm really getting into James Taylor," says Beck, 32, cradling a beat-up copy of Taylor's 1975 easy-listening opus, Gorilla, its cover featuring amustachioed Taylor in white leisure suit and sandals. "When I was younger, I used to think he was awful. But people don't understand that as much as punk was rebelling against guys like this, he was rebelling against punk just singing from the heart." Beck, who once fronted an L.A. punk band, is not kidding. He grabs eight used Taylor LPs and presents them to a goth kid behind the register. The kid smiles and says, "Interesting."
Some people are talented enough to do whatever they want with their careers. Few of them actually do it. Beck is among the few. After 1999's Midnite Vultures, essentially a postmodern rap comedy album, what Beck wants to do is be direct. Sea Change, his seventh and best album (out this week), is a simple affair. It's a breakup record almost all the songs are ballads with a slight country-blues feel. There's little of Beck's trademark musical schizophrenia and none of his arch humor. "I just wanted the record to be simple and clean," he says. "I wanted economy in the lyrics, and I wanted the songwriting to be very, very straightforward."
Sea Change was born after Beck split with his longtime girlfriend, stylist Leigh Limon, in 2000. He wrote most of the album's 12 songs in one prodigious week, then put them in cold storage. "Songs sit in my head for a while," he says. "I have dozens in there, songs from eight years ago that I've written but never recorded. After a while, I just sort of decide to record them." In early 2002, Beck drifted back to the breakup tunes and called his frequent producer, Nigel Godrich. A few weeks later, Sea Change was finished. "Everything with him is that simple," says Godrich, "because unlike most people, he always seems to know exactly what he wants to do."
For a multiplatinum pop artist at the height of his career to do a love-sick ballad album is a risk. For him to do it without any meddling from his record company is a minor miracle and a tribute to Beck's business savvy. When he arrived on the scene with 1993's Loser, a lo-fi novelty hit from which most critics thought he would never recover, Beck was inundated with record offers trying to capitalize on his status as the Slacker Guy. "I could have gone with it," he says. "That could have been my shtick. But I wanted to be something a little more."
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."