I have come to view "Paper Tiger" as a key song on Sea Change
. Both lyrically and musically it makes a strong statement, and without it, the album would have been a far more typical "break-up" album, emotionally speaking.
Much of the album has Beck wondering why he's so lonesome ("Lonesome Tears
") or giving up ("Lost Cause
") or struggling with his sadness ("The Golden Age
"). On "Paper Tiger" however, Beck is realizing things are over and hopeless, and it is in that realization, he finds strength. Realizing something is hopeless is the first step past it. A paper tiger refers to someone who appears to be in power, but actually is not (normally government related). That's a sad thing, but realizing a paper tiger rules, takes away their power.
Much of this strength is somewhat unstated, but it's there if you listen for it. Much of it, though, comes through the music. Beck's voice is determined and sure, and he's punctuated with some extremely confident strings. That whole orchestral section before the "one road" coda makes quite a statement. None of the leftover "I barely get by, I don't even try" stuff here from the previous song
. Beck knows what happened, and there's "no road back." A lot of the images fit this, as there's "no more ashes," idle hands have finished tearing apart, boats have capsized and washed up. Everything in the song is behind him. Beck has left the future out of it, but he's ready for it.
The 70s mood of the song is also pretty sweet. Justin Meldal-Johnsen's funky and fancy bassline grooves, and I can't say enough about the lush, swooping strings. The strings were recorded live with the rhythm section. (James Gadson reminisced about how beautiful this was to play with in an interview on Beck.com.)
Beck has declared numerous times that Serge Gainsbourg
's Melody Nelson
album is a favorite, and "Paper Tiger"s instrumentation and subtle melody are almost certainly a tribute. The echoes of Nick Drake in the lyrics and Gainsbourg in the music is a very intriguing combination.
Played live 120 times:
August 23, 2002October 14, 2002October 17, 2002October 18, 2002October 22, 2002October 24, 2002October 25, 2002October 26, 2002October 28, 2002October 30, 2002
...and 110 more
Earliest known live version: August 23, 2002
Latest known live version: February 9, 2013
I don't know what kind of situation would allow for this, but Beck must find an orchestra to back him and do this on stage at some point.
The live debut of the song came on August 23 2002 in Dallas. It was played very quietly, slowly, beautifully. It's one of those hypnotically stunning pieces of music, and couldn't be more different from the melodic orchestra arrangements on the record! Smokey played acoustic guitar, and Beck added a little keyboards at the end, but I think for the most part, he just sang.
At the first show on October 14 2002, Beck played with the Flaming Lips, they played the first real band version of the song. After being in the middle of the first couple of sets, it fell towards the end of the setlists for most of the tour. I'm not convinced yet that "Paper Tiger" is really improved being in the rock band arrangement (some of the orchestral riffs are now on guitar, some on synthesizer), but it is still a pretty groovy and great song to hear live.
Beck's band in the summer of 2003 had a cool take on "Paper Tiger." Maybe not as smooth or effortless as the album or the Lips, but a crazy guitar solo and more noisiness are the highlights.
On February 5 2005, at one of his "secret" shows before the release of Guero, Beck tossed "Paper Tiger" into the middle of the otherwise all-Guero setlist. It was just the one time though, and they haven't tried the song again. Their version is fairly solid, mostly noteworthy for some cool synth pad effects taking the place of the strings. His new band though handles the song quite well, considering they hadn't played together much and this was a "rare" song for them.