Don't you sometimes wonder how many of Beck's artistic triumphs are more the result of context than ingenuity? That we wouldn't be nearly as impressed by his raggedy folk songs if they weren't preceded by Day-Glo disco-pop, or that we wouldn't consider him the white man's Prince if we didn't also think of him as the white man's Beastie Boys? I can still remember hearing "Loser" for the first time, driving around suburban Chicago with my dad, looking for some church he couldn't quite remember, and getting as excited by the song as I had been by "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a few years earlier; my dad thought it was cool, too. But watching an old concert on television the other night the dude's Odelay schtick seemed so callow and overconsidered, like he knew we'd be embarrassed into clapping for somebody aping James Brown and Wendy Carlos at the same time. Still, the sweat stains on his short-sleeved oxford shirt looked real, and he made me laugh out loud when he told the crowd he had to put his coat back on. From what I've heard of the new Sea Change, due late next month on Interscope, he's prepared to surprise us again, turning in a downcast set of acoustic space-rock songs not unlike those on 1998's sublime Mutations--should be perfect for his "unplugged" set at the Granada. And if you find his souped-up Nick Drake steez lame? Wait till the fall, when the shapeshifter returns on tour backed by sonic maximalists the Flaming Lips, who will no doubt make Sea Change's stripped-down setting sound as fresh as a new idea.

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