Beck’s music has always been characterized by unexpected juxtapositions, and two very different Becks were on display during his performance at the Wadsworth Theater. For most of this tour, Beck performed the songs with only the accompaniment of guitarist Smokey Hormel, but for this home-town appearance (and final date of the tour), they were joined by his longtime band. Their subtly easygoing playing emphasized the quality and craft at the heart of Beck’s new songs, including the wizened country rock of “Paper Tiger,” the quiet devastation of “Lost Cause” and swirling psychedelia of “Sunday Sun,” which is reminiscent of the Kinks and Zombies at their most autumnal.
The early part of the evening was the realm of the ironic jokester. Looking like a refugee from a boarding school in black jeans, dark blazer, white shirt and tie, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter turned the instrument-strewn stage into his playhouse. Hyperactively bouncing between guitars, keyboards and whatever else caught his fancy, he used songs such as “Pay No Mind” and “Lazy Flies” as launching pads for goofy monologues, cutting songs short, breaking into impromptu snippets of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin.’ ”
The only time he played it straight in the early going was during two covers: a respectful version of Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow” and a breathtakingly vulnerable rendition of Big Star’s “Kangaroo.” Those two melancholy tunes foreshadowed what was to come.
Halfway into the two-hour perf — around the time he seamlessly segued from tooling with a recalcitrant drum machine to a bluesy, impassioned “One Foot in the Grave” — Beck settled into a contemplative mood that would distinguish the rest of the evening.
This newly minted seriousness reflects his exceptional new album, “Sea Change,” (due Sept. 24 from Geffen) that recalls 1998’s “Mutations.” Seductively moody, with lush string arrangements (by Beck’s father, David Campbell), at first blush the album sits comfortably on the same shelf as such other end-of-the-affair classics as Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights,” Dylan’s “Desire” and just about anything by Leonard Cohen.
The mood occasionally was lightened by Beck’s inspired vaudeville touches. He displayed a Chaplinesque bit of business involving a microphone stand and cables that led into a beautifully mournful solo version of “Nobody’s Fault,” made even more effective by his seated harmonium accompaniment, and the version of “Tropicalia” that saw him trying to fool the band by speeding up the drum machine providing the song’s Latin beat.
By the time the evening ended with a pensive cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” Beck had masterfully remade himself as a mature chronicler of romantic dissolution.
Beck, accompanied by the Flaming Lips, returns to the road this fall.