Simple genius 

Plus: another songpile from Ryan Adams

Sea Change
Geffen Records

“Any damn fool can get complicated,” Pete Seeger once said. “It takes a genius to attain simplicity.” Beck Hansen, the poet of the weird and lovely, is back, and he’s attained simplicity with an acoustic, slow, symphony triumphant. Sea Change is Beck’s fifth major label studio release in what has probably been one of the most steadily creative and prolific American musical careers of our time. Like everything else Beck creates, this album is different than anything he’s done before, and it sings like a slow, pleasant, and sometimes painful ride through the night to the beach for dawn.

“The Golden Age” shines in with a steel guitar’s whine and sets the pace for the album, which is slow, and more kin to Mutations than his last album, the dance classic Midnight Vultures. “Nothing I Haven’t Seen” is a powerful song that embodies the darker and slightly cynical nature of many of these songs. “Lost Cause” is a beautiful little ballad, strummed through in a peculiar way, leaving lost causes behind. There’s steel guitar, acoustic, and also symphonic sounds, but this music is by no means classical, nor is it country or folk. It’s all of these things, and that’s what’s amazing about Beck’s music. He is, in every sense of the word, an original musician, with a solid understanding of any number of musical roots.

Sea Change sounds good technically, too. It was produced by Nigel Godrich, whose credits include Radiohead. The sound is sharp and clear, mixed with a fairly simple blend of acoustic guitar by Beck, and, as always, a host of strange sounds and instrumentation. The album maintains its simplicity throughout, though, staying true to the overall sound and feeling without getting muddled in complications. vAt some points it turns almost painfully slow, as in “Round the Bend.” As a whole, Sea Change carries a much more somber tone than anything Beck has done.

Lyrically, Beck has gone introspective, and proved that he can write more than just songs about nothing. Sea Change is a very personal album, and another bold move for Hansen, and once again, the gamble pays off.

Ryan Adams
Lost Highway Records

Demolition is mostly a collection of songs that were favorites of a friend of Ryan Adams who died of cancer. In that sense, and like most of Adams’ music, this album is incredibly personal. Musically, it’s a slight departure from the classic rock feel of its predecessor, Gold. Demolition isn’t nearly as impressive as most of his previous work, but it still shines, like all of his music, if for no other reason than absolute emotional honesty. That alone is something to be appreciated in music these days.

Most of the songs are performed by one of Adams’s assorted bands, the Pinkhearts. I thought I was listening to the Breeders when I heard the first track, “Nuclear,” a song that strangely seems to be as much about love as it is about atomic science. Adams claims to be non-political, but in reality he seems to be as much contradictory as anything else. Either way, he’s gone mainstream, for better or for worse, which is ironic in light of his last album, which showed Adams fronting an upside-down American flag on the cover.

Demolition takes sudden turns, but stays pretty fluent throughout. “You Will Always Be the Same” is a rolling, bluesy bellow about…well, people who don’t change. It is much more reminiscent of his first solo album, Heartbreaker. Adams gets his lounge-act kicks in “Tennessee Sucks;” file under easy listening. “Dear Chicago” is a quiet, acoustic letter asking the city to send its regards to a girl who lives there, and is the best-arranged song on the album, echoing with acoustic melodies that paint words of realization and declaration.

Ryan Adams will try to tell you he’s not a country singer, but I don’t believe him for a minute. He is a tremendously talented songwriter in general, but the songs that shine on this album are the acoustic ballads and simple tunes like “Chin Up, Cheer Up.” Adams is and always has been a rock star in every sense of the word—both good and bad. Many of the heavier songs on this album leave something to be desired, but, for me, still have something about them that seems classic.

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