Frank Sinatra's 1976 recording of "Send In The Clowns" opens with a few words of introduction that explain the story of a dissolving relationship to follow. "Whether it's the man or woman who left is unimportant," Sinatra says. "It's a breakup." The same sentiment could introduce Beck's new Sea Change, a breakup album where bowed heads replace pointed fingers. Somber by anyone's standards, especially compared to the infectious plastic funk of 1999's Midnite Vultures, Sea Change puts a tight close-up on the final days of a good relationship gone bad. Working again with Nigel Godrich, producer of the similarly delicate but otherwise divergent Mutations, Beck swaddles the hurt in a lush assortment of elements that would sound like Babel under anyone else's direction. Steel guitars meet Morricone strings, and beneath it all, Beck sings the blues. Sea Change was reportedly written in a heat following the end of a long relationship, and it sounds like it; the disc takes a heartbroken stretch of days and compresses them down to album size, in a way that might have sounded oppressive in its self-pity if Beck were any less assured. These songs come from a cul de sac: The reasons for going there can no longer be articulated, and the only way out is the path that led in. For all the typically diverse influences, these songs are simple in a way that the artist's past efforts have only suggested. "I'm tired of fighting, fighting for a lost cause," goes a line repeated throughout "Lost Cause," going past the accusations and the anger to the sadness beneath. It's a breakup, after all. Beck knows what Sinatra and Sondheim knew before him: No matter who failed whom, the sadness is always what remains. Sometimes, it even gets turned into music of disquieting beauty.
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