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 feeling deeply lonesome ("Lonesome Tears
"), or giving up ("Lost Cause
"), or struggling with finding hope ("The Golden Age
"). On "Paper Tiger" however, Beck is realizing the situation and feeling hopeless, but 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 it is political). That is a sad thing, but realizing a paper tiger is in charge takes away their power. These feelings are weak, and from that, he can grow.
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 by itself. None of the leftover "I barely get by, I don't even try" stuff here from the previous song
. Beck knows what happened, is in touch with reality, and that there is "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. In leaving the future out of the song, he shows he is getting ready for it.
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 to 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. Gainsbourg used strings in a way that they moved, not just as subtle flavor, but a real lead instrument, and that's what you're hearing here on "Paper Tiger" too.
Played live 173 times:
August 23, 2002October 14, 2002October 17, 2002October 18, 2002October 22, 2002October 24, 2002October 25, 2002October 26, 2002October 28, 2002October 30, 2002
...and 163 more
Earliest known live version: August 23, 2002
Latest known live version: June 28, 2022
Beck has performed "Paper Tiger" many times since its release. It is absolutely one of his best stage songs.
2002 pre-Sea Change
Before Sea Change
came out, but after it was recorded, Beck went on a month-long solo acoustic tour. Most of the songs premiered in that month. "Paper Tiger" did too, though it was only played one time, on August 23 2002 in Dallas. It was played very quietly, slowly, beautifully. It's one of those hypnotically stunning pieces of music, and this version could not 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. Brilliant, and I wish Beck did it this way a bit more often.
2002 Flaming Lips tour
At the first show on October 14 2002, Beck played with the Flaming Lips, they played the first real live 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 the remainder of the tour. Their version of "Paper Tiger" followed a full band arrangement (some of the orchestral riffs are now on guitar, some on synthesizer), but it wouldn't be quite as dramatic as it would get in later years.
2003 band versions
Beck took his Sea Change
band to Australia/Japan in spring 2003 and they played "Paper Tiger."
Then Beck's new band in the summer of 2003 had a cool take on "Paper Tiger." Maybe not as smooth or effortless as the album, or with the Lips, but a crazy guitar solo and more general noisiness are the highlights. They played it pretty much every night.
2005-2007 Guero/Info tours
In 2005, behind Guero
, Beck played many shows, but "Paper Tiger" only showed up six times. Their version was fairly solid, mostly noteworthy for some cool synth pad effects taking the place of the strings. This new band handles the song quite well, it's relative rarity is curious.
2006 and 2007, on the other hand, saw "Paper Tiger" return to regular status, when it was played almost every night.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tours
"Paper Tiger" fell out of rotation again during Modern Guilt
times, though it did show up a scant five times. First, at a tour warm-up show, the band gave it a try. It didn't last.
Then on Sept 20 2008, Beck did a show at the Hollywood Bowl with an orchestra conducted by his father. They played all the songs in his catalog that contain string sections, and naturally "Paper Tiger" was a centerpiece. Hearing those strings live was incredible. This led to the song being played one more time a few nights later without the orchestra, before being dropped again.
2011-2013 pre-Morning Phase
Beck toured sporadically in this time period, and "Paper Tiger" showed up sporadically at those. Beck's 2012 run, billed as an anniversary tour of Sea Change
with the band who helped record it, saw the most "Paper Tiger" appearances, but overall it was played just 9 more times.
2014 Morning Phase tours
Beck played "Paper Tiger" at 13 of the 57 shows on the Morning Phase tour of 2014. This version pretty much follows the map of the album, except instead of the guitar solo leading into the orchestral part, it just keeps soloing straight through the section. The first two times (both shows in Santa Barbara), Smokey Hormel played the guitar solo; the remaining 11 times, Jason Falkner was in the band and took the lead (Jason's the guitarist on the album). For a few of the shows, Jason actually extended the solo even longer than usual. He definitely had a different style from Smokey, more melodic and less dissonant. But both sounded great! This was one of my favorite songs from the 2014 tour, and wished it was there every night. It should have been!
2015-2017 post-Morning Phase
"Paper Tiger" has carried over into the last few years, and possibly always will as long as Jason Falkner is in the band. In 2015, it was played at around a third of the shows. In 2016/2017, it was performed quite regularly again, until the U2 tour of Sept. 2017, when it was included in Beck's shortened opening sets. Jason still uses the song to shred mightily (and his solo is not the same every night).
While "Paper Tiger" rarely has any drastic new feel to it, depending on the band involved (or even night to night), the song could be sometimes noisier or cleaner, smoother rhythm or more of a march, heavier or breezier.