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September 27, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a photo of Beck and Willie Nelson, posed as if they’d just walked in from working on the railroad. While Nelson looks as natural in his grit as in his wrinkles, Beck looks like a sly hipster, and all the grime in the world can’t wash that away.

That Zeliglike posturing pervaded each of Beck’s past albums, from the electro-hip-hop ringmaster of ”Odelay” to the super-fly soul man of ”Midnite Vultures.” Each time, he dazzled us with his showmanship but never made us believe his characters. Even on ”Mutations,” the most earnest of his past efforts, he mixed ironic gibes with his acoustic guitars and heartfelt sentiment to let us know that he was still just playing a role.

On Sea Change, the post-pop troubadour returns to ”Mutations”’ mellow moodiness, but with less psychedelia and bossa nova. Consisting almost entirely of meditative orchestral dirges, the CD is, at first, off-putting (which explains the minimal buzz surrounding ”Sea”). Nigel Godrich, who produced ”Mutations” (and Radiohead’s ”OK Computer”), adds technophilic touches, from otherworldly xylophone (à la ”No Surprises”) to windswept backdrops.

For the first time, Beck is pointedly revisiting a previous album’s sound and style, but he’s also doing something totally new: playing himself. He recently described this CD as his most personal, a reflection of recent heartbreak. ”It’s only life that I’m livin’/It’s only tears that I’m cryin’/It’s only you that I’m losin’/Guess I’m doin’ fine,” he sings, and instead of irony, it sounds like therapy. With repeated listenings, the sluggish ditties transform into a beautiful, mournful hymn of love won and lost. Willie would be proud.

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