Tell Him What He’s Won, Bob
In Which Our Hero Gets New Wheels and Talks About Honesty

I’ve been feeling a bit low lately.

My apologies to all those folks whose calls and e-mails I haven’t responded to – I appreciate the good wishes, and I will get back to all of you, I swear. It’s just that I’ve been in a funk since the new editorial mandate, and coupled with the fact that writing shorter pieces about stupid things paradoxically takes longer for me than writing miniature novels on important issues, I haven’t been in much of a companionship mood. A public apology, then, to the people in my life who have proven again and again that they will do anything to stay there. Your patience and friendship is appreciated.

So, guess what I did?

Give up?

I did what all Americans do when they get down in the dumps – I spent a shit-ton of money. Long story short, my piece of shit Saturn had begun making this hellish whining noise whenever I pushed it above 50 miles per hour. I marshaled every ounce of mechanical aptitude that I possess and proclaimed the noise “not good.” Hence, I drove onto the Ford lot near my house, and in about an hour, I became the proud owner of a 2002 Focus, which many, many people have told me since was one of the worst choices I could have made.

But hell, it runs, it runs well, and I got one of those 72,000-mile warranties, so I think it’s all good. Plus, it’s blue and shiny and roomy and it still has that great new car smell. And I’ll be paying for it until I’m 33. But whatever. For at least a little while, I can pull myself out of my depression by saying, either to myself or out loud, “I bought a new car.” That’s worth it.

Okay, this column is starting to read like one of those annoying blog things that have infected the ‘net as of late, and I have a whole stack of CDs ready for review. Music! Music! Go Go Go!

* * * * *

Here’s what I don’t understand about Beck.

Or rather, I guess, what I don’t understand about the critical reaction to Beck’s career. There’s no doubting that Mr. Hansen is one of our finest musical ironists, able to poke fun at any style by imitating it down to the smallest identifying details. His usual modus operandi, if he can be said to have one, is to maintain a safe ironic distance from whatever style he’s lambasting, while simultaneously immersing himself in the sonic collage he’s crafting. The result is kind of a post-modern nostalgia trip, particularly for fans of funk, soul and old-school hip hop.

But see, here’s what I don’t understand. When Beck puts out a funk-pop album like Odelay or a soul record like Midnite Vultures, critics praise him for his satirical abilities. Hell, even Prince probably laughed at how well Beck aped his sex-charged falsetto on Vultures‘ “Debra,” one of his best tunes. But when Beck turns around and releases something like Mutations, or like his latest, Sea Change, those same critics pile on the platitudes for breaking down that satirical wall and releasing music charged with honesty and sincerity.

If anything, Sea Change is an even more deadpan imitation of Nick Drake than Vultures was of Prince. It’s dark, woozy, depressing music full of atmospheric beauty, sure, but there’s no more evidence of sincerity here than there was on Mellow Gold. In many ways, it’s his finest work of satire yet, devoid of the winking self-consciousness that marked Mutations, and the best evidence of its effectiveness would be the legions of “musicologists” lauding it for its openness.

Sea Change is a stunning update of Drake’s Five Leaves Left sound. You get the acoustic guitar driving all of the songs at a loping pace, the marvelously arranged strings that dance around the melody, the harpsichords and electric pianos that add flavor here and there, and you get Beck himself, singing like he’s already slashed one wrist and is headed for the other. The songs have titles like “Already Dead,” “Lonesome Tears” and “Lost Cause,” and lyrical lines like “Your sorry eyes cut to the bone” and “It feels like I’m watching something die.”

And like all faithful recreations, you’ll respond well to Sea Change if you’re already enamored with the style he’s chosen. I sure am, and whether he intended sincerity or not, Beck has made the best and most beautiful album of his career here, and one of the best of the year. Rib-tickling homage or not, Odelay was a kick-ass funk record, and by the same token, Sea Change is an uncannily gorgeous song cycle. It’s all about the music anyway, and this music is terrific.

A huge portion of the credit undoubtedly must go to Nigel Godrich, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the finest producers on the planet. Godrich produced, among other things, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and Beck’s Mutations. He’s a master of atmosphere, and his deft touch lends an otherworldly quality to these recordings. Without Godrich, the Nick Drake reference wouldn’t be quite so accurate – Sea Change is such an effective portrait of going under that it sounds like it was recorded in the split-second before all the musicians peacefully drowned.

Every song on this album is a wonder, both sonically and musically. The hazy “Round the Bend” is the closest Beck gets to a drone, but every song has at least one killer melody, and the album never blends together into a dismal mess. That would have been so easy with material like this, but Beck and Godrich spread magic over every minute of this album. “Paper Tiger,” for example, is buoyed by insistent, stabbing strings that leave you breathless, and “Sunday Sun” rises on a wave of pianos and guitars that finally crashes at the end, reminiscent of much of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The truly ironic thing would be if Beck’s younger fans, raised on a steady diet of funk-inflected hip-hop, bought Sea Change and hailed it as a new style. Beck is still an imitator, not an innovator, but in this case he’s chosen magnificent source material. In a lot of ways, Beck’s entire career thus far has been an imitation of David Bowie’s, complete with hops from style to style. There’s no evidence that Bowie has deeply felt one word or note of his long career, either, but that doesn’t make his music any less relevant or spectacular. Similarly, whether Beck means it or not, Sea Change is a masterpiece.

* * * * *

The same might be said of Ryan Adams, who wears his tortured-poet pose like a rumpled shirt. Even his haircut simultaneously cries out for love while warning of abusive tendencies. Whether or not that’s really Adams is irrelevant: the man writes beautiful songs, and if acting like a lovestruck Romeo with a cocaine problem helps him to do that, then pose away, young Adams.

I’m being harsh, I know, but it seems like everything I read about Adams focuses on his image and his loud mouth rather than his undeniable talent. Last year Adams made a record called Gold that covered 76 minutes (plus a bonus disc, cheekily called Side Four) with not one lousy song. Some of them, in fact, were absolutely lovely (“When the Stars Go Blue” and “Wild Flowers,” to name but two), and had I been thinking straight, I’d have included Gold on the Top 10 List for 2001.

While making Gold, so the legend goes, the former Whiskeytowner also slapped together four other full-length albums, some with a band and some without. Since then, Adams has downgraded those recordings to “demo collections,” and has whittled them down to one 13-track compilation, called Demolition. (Never fear, completists: Adams says that if this disc sells well, he’ll put all four albums out in a boxed set by Christmas.)

In order to talk about Demolition, I think we need to clarify the definition of “demo” just a bit. While it’s true that every version of a song prior to the final studio recording technically qualifies as a demo, I remember when demos were sloppy, indistinct things recorded in a garage or a living room. They were first stabs at songs, and gave tremendous insight into the shaping of the final version. These days, any hack with a few bucks can afford either studio time or home recording equipment that delivers digital clarity, and if you’re a rock star like Adams, you can get producers like Ethan Johns to make your demos.

Basically, there’s no reason to call these recordings demos. They’re not even appreciably rawer than much of Gold, so don’t be scared. Demolition is just another Ryan Adams album, and while his batting average isn’t quite what it was on Gold, most of these songs are excellent. Highlights include the fragile “Cry On Demand,” the raucous “Starting to Hurt” and the lovely “Tomorrow,” featuring glorious harmonies by Gillian Welch, but if you like any of Adams’ previous material, you’ll like this.

There are some low lights, however. Most glaringly, if I were U2’s lawyer, I would seriously consider some kind of legal action over “Desire.” Opener “Nuclear” seems to exist simply to prove that Adams knows the correct pronunciation of the word (“new-clear,” not “new-cue-lar”), since it doesn’t sound like he put too much thought into it. And “Tennessee Sucks” is a great name for a song, and should have been more caustic – there are plenty of good reasons to write such a song, trust me. This one, however, is a Van Morrison-esque portrait of lazy summer days, and could take place anywhere.

But the majority of Demolition upholds Adams’ reputation as a purveyor of fresh-sounding traditionalism, a country-tinged folk-rocker that won’t make you wince at that description. He exists in a strange middle ground between Dylan, Springsteen and Steve Earle, and so far, he’s walked that tightrope well. But beyond all the pithy analyses, and even beyond his sensitive-danger-boy image, Adams is just a guy who writes good songs and sings them well. There are a whole bunch of those good songs on Demolition, all sung well, and anything else you need to enjoy it is your problem.

Oh, and just for the record, Tennessee does, indeed, suck.

* * * * *

One of my two favorite guitarists, Michael Roe, put out three albums this year so far, not counting the new Lost Dogs live album, so I wasn’t even waiting for something from my other fave, Mark Knopfler. But here it is – the former Dire Straits leader’s third solo album, called The Ragpicker’s Dream. And if you’re put off by that title, you shouldn’t buy it.

While both Beck and Ryan Adams specialize in updates of more traditional sounds, Knopfler wanted the real deal, and so Ragpicker’s is mostly a down-home country-fied folk shuffle. It’s also almost entirely acoustic, which is fine, but Knopfler has an electric guitar tone that can’t be beat, and it’s kind of a shame that it appears so infrequently here.

Quibble, quibble. Never mind what isn’t here, what’s here is a fun diversion, if nothing special. For Knopfler fans, here’s the best way to describe it: about 10 years ago, Knopfler formed a side band called the Notting Hillbillies. They put out one record, the joyous, back-woods Missing, Presumed Having a Good Time. This album sounds like that one.

You’ll know Knopfler isn’t taking himself too seriously by the first track, a pseudo-Irish lilt called “Why Aye Man” that also contains the best electric guitar lick on the record. Most of the rest consists of late-’50s and early-’60s inspired acoustic romps, with the occasional stomp thrown in (“Coyote,” “You Don’t Know You’re Born”). It’s fun, but it’s not nearly as engrossing or impressive as Sailing to Philadelphia, or any of Knopfler’s work with Dire Straits.

Still, though, it has more than its share of delights, especially early highlight “Hill Farmer’s Blues,” which drifts into the stratosphere on lovely sustained guitar lines. “Devil Baby” is a beautiful song marred by cheesy hee-haw lyrics, which actually could describe roughly half of these tunes. “A Place Where We Used to Live” is a low, rumbling soft jazz number suffused with nearly imperceptible menace. The aforementioned “Coyote” is, by Knopfler standards, a bone-crusher.

And if you stop the disc before you hit the title track, at number 10, you’ll spare yourself the album’s quick decline into silly, trite guff. “Old Pigweed” isn’t even worth discussing, so obliterated is it by the lyrics. So we won’t. I’ll simply leave it by saying that on the final tracks, Knopfler crosses the line from fun novelty, like “Quality Shoe,” into ridiculous embarrassment.

If Mark Knopfler made albums more quickly, I wouldn’t mind an occasional backyard hootenanny like The Ragpicker’s Dream, but he doesn’t. It took two years to bring us this one, even though more than half of it sounds like it was recorded in an afternoon. It gets by on his distinctive voice and guitar style, which few can even imitate, let alone duplicate. It’s entirely possible that this album will grow on me before year’s end, but right now I’m on my fifth trip through, and it still hasn’t grabbed me. It’s too bad, because when Knopfler’s on, he’s a treasure.

* * * * *

I was going to review Ben Folds today too, but I think that’s enough words for one week, don’t you? Coming up, craploads more music, and the deluge doesn’t stop anytime soon, either. I think I’m going to take a nap now.

But first, I might drive around the block a few times in my brand-freakin’-new car.

See you in line Tuesday morning.