Beck - Sea Change

In 2012, the very idea of a breakup record has been rendered something of an anachronism. The divorce-album-as-discographical-inevitability is a phenomenon that historically occurs deep into an established artist’s career, and very few new artists are afforded that sort of shelf life anymore. But it wasn’t long ago that the notion of a mainstream artist gambling their reputation by over-sharing was as ubiquitous a rock and roll cliché as the double live album and the heroic destruction of a Doubletree suite. Records like Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, and Val Stoecklein’s Grey Life express the near-universality of deflated expectations. At their best, they resonate with anyone who’s ever had a case of the answering machine blues. At their worst, their self-pitying solipsism still makes for great art. Beck’s Sea Change is one of the last of the records in this great tradition, and yesterday, it turned 10 years old.

Beck had bared his soul before, in a sense, on 1998′s Mutations, and like Sea Change, that album followed an impersonal, irony-saturated work with a more reflective, earnest one. But it’s easy to mistake Mutations’ largely acoustic mood for actual primacy. Beck is one of pop music’s great chameleons, but his capriciousness works best from album to album, and not from song to song, when his eclectic leanings can often sound satiric and insincere. Peppered throughout Mutations are odious genre experiments — colonialist tropicalia, druggy psych folk, fatback r&b — that consistently break the album’s spell. This impish insistence on the blending of every sound he has ever heard has rightfully earned Beck as many detractors as fans. Sea Change, however, finds our hero exploring a single theme: heartbreak. For this gesture of thematic focus alone, Sea Change is an achievement. The fact that the album features the same band as the markedly different Midnite Vultures is also a testament to Beck’s immaculate vision, as well as his warranted trust in a group that effortlessly matches his own versatility.

More importantly, Sea Change most differs from the disputatious Mutations (and other acoustic-based albums like the great One Foot In The Grave) in that it is not so much mellow as it is lush, and it’s not so much personal as it is, well, sad. Beck’s well-publicized breakup (with his girlfriend of nine years and fiancée Leigh Limon) provides the context for these songs, and he sounds as if he’s aged 25 years since Midnite Vultures — compare his vocals on “End Of The Day” to “Debra.” All the studio sheen in the world can’t really disguise the fact that dude’s been seriously, irreparably damaged by this breakup.

Producer Nigel Godrich’s reputation as something of a King Midas for post-grunge acts is well earned. His production, here and elsewhere, is of the “you get what you pay for” variety, and Sea Change quite literally sounds like a million dollars. The reverb on Beck’s voice alone –- rich and full-bodied -– sounds as if it has been worked-over for weeks. Still, for a supposedly mellow album of songs about heartbreak and loss, Sea Change can come off as oppressive, frequently dramatic when intimate and woozy would do. Occasionally, it sounds like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for people who collect vintage pinball machines.

And then there are those pesky accusations of theft. Oscar Wilde almost certainly had Beck in his crystal ball when he uttered his famous quip about talent borrowing and genius stealing. Critics have always bayed in adulation at Beck’s Prince-ly poses and obscurist MCing, but Beck’s affinity for pastiche is not at all limited to schizophrenic classics like Odelay. On Sea Change, the objects of Beck’s affection are mostly Serge Gainsbourg and AM radio navel-gazers of yore like Graham Nash, Gordon Lightfoot and Poco. The similarity between the arrangement of “Paper Tiger” and Gainsbourg’s “L’hotel Particulier,” for instance, is uncanny. Many frothing haters will also tell you, quite correctly, that “Round the Bend” –- one of Sea Change’s most stunning songs –- pretty blatantly cops Nick Drake’s “River Man.” Now, this may seem like criticism, but Beck has always approached his records with the decorous eye of a museum curator (see also: Air, Ween, Beastie Boys), so why should his approach differ now that he’s finally dealing in actual feelings? It is crucial to remember that Beck’s a folkie at heart — his earliest records make this clear — and what is folk music (or blues, for that matter) without appropriation? If the primary distinction of Sea Change is that it attempts to be timeless rather than merely timely, it only does so by dialing back the kitsch and referencing things that are actually good instead of ironically good. Taking that into account, the sound of Sea Change isn’t much of a departure at all.

But this isn’t an instrumental album, and if the form of Sea Change remains consistent with Beck’s body of work, the content is anything but. This is not merely a record of breakup songs, but one of highly specialized breakup songs. The tone throughout is reflective and resigned; the complete lack of bitterness or cynicism in the lyrics sets it apart from any other record like it. On Sea Change, Beck isn’t scissoring the faces of his ex out of old Polaroids, and he’s not muttering or sobbing or calling to see if anyone answers and then hanging up; he’s just totally, thoroughly, pitiably disappointed. For proof, listen closely to the last few seconds of “Lost Cause,” when Beck lets out an exhausted sigh. It concludes one of the album’s most devastating songs with one of its most revealing, beautiful moments. Later, when Beck groans “I wanted to be a good friend” on the Big Star-esque “All In Your Mind,” the prior suggestion to do away with the self-described perdedor on “Loser” suddenly seems more humane than humorous. The lyrics of Sea Change are sung from a position of bummed vulnerability, but they are rarely trite, which is one of the more admirable high wire acts of the sensitive singer-songwriter. In the end, it’s the maturity with which Beck handles this split that may be the most unsettling thing about it.

If this all sounds more the domain of a sad sack the likes of, say, Neil Halstead than that of a man whose former lyrical concerns revolved around Satanic tacos and dildos large enough to crush the sun, consider that Beck was 32, richer than God, and utterly heartbroken when he recorded Sea Change. An enduring, well-loved record is certainly the best thing anyone could have hoped to emerge from such circumstances. I dig this version of Beck: the leaf blower-wielding performance artist reborn as heartbroken bohemian superstar. And there is, of course, a perverse moral to be found in the woeful tale of Sea Change, as well: Even after years of running on rocket power, it’s good to know that even our biggest stars, too, occasionally get nailed to the ground.

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Comments (43)
  1. The change from Midnite Vultures to Sea Change is one of the reasons Beck is my favorite musician (band?) even though it shows how clearly he can portray emotions in his music. One album he’s singing songs about the freakiest sex imaginable and JC Penney and in the next he’s written some of the most heartbreaking songs ever.

    Dude. This album rules. Beck rules.

  2. Looks like these types of albums come ever ten years, 2012′s version came from Jens Lekman. Wonder who will release the uber-bummer masterpiece of 2022?

    • Woah – my current heartbreak trauma has been totally soundtracked by Sea Change and I Know What Love Isn’t. I think they slot pretty perfectly into the literate sad sack phase… And then for that bitter/emo stint, we’ve always got The Meadowlands and American Football.

  3. Wonderful record. But it’s quite unforgivable that you didn’t embebed the Hammer & Tongs video for “Lost Cause”. It’s one of the most beautiful ever produced. Here it is: http://youtu.be/qkNa5xzOe5U

    • Forgot all about that great video (I probably haven’t seen it in 10 years), thanks for that!

    • Hammer & Tongs deserve Michel Gondry’s fandom and recognition. Great video output, specially the mind-bending video for REM’s ‘Imitation of Life’. And Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow are underrated gems.

  4. I loved this album. Also I remember seeing/hearing The Black Keys for the first time because they opened for Beck on the tour for this album. That was a good night.

  5. 10 years ago from today, i was so sick with mono i made my little brother go to get it for me.

    and a month later, i went to go see beck tour behind this record with the flaming lips as openers and his backing band. now THAT was an awesome show.

  6. I love this album. I remember thinking that the Beck “sloppy-genius” sound was getting a little tired (I’ve since warmed up a lot to M.V. and Mutations), but this was a masterstroke; as if Beck was saying “Oh yeah Kevin Broydrick? You’re not diggin’ my sound anymore? while check THIS out”

    Yes it’s a sad album, one of the saddest, not a lot of hope to be found. But I can’t think of a better example of someone truly channeling sorrow into an album that’s never whiny or complaining. And it was a stepping stone over the trouble he was facing at the time; time capsule stuff.

    It’s hard to say this is “best” Beck album. But I just did. It is.

  7. Oh my word. I’ve been listening to Sea Change for years now, and I didn’t even notice the sigh at the end of Lost Cause until I went back and listened to it after reading this article. Suddenly, the weight of this album is pressing on me much harder than it did originally. I’m still going to have to put it behind Midnite Vultures as my favorite Beck album, but now the line between them is almost invisible.

    • Also, on a completely unrelated note, I just came home with brand new copy of The Money Store from my local big-box record store, and when I un-shrinkwrapped it, Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica was in the sleeve. Apparently someone at Epic got distracted while they was packin’ vinyls.

  8. Every stupid breakup song with the most trite lyrics quoted by youngins these days really pisses me off.
    Like the writer said, this is a mature, extremely observant and interesting take on heartbreak that blends smart and poignant lyrics with music that matches in its melancholia. No over-exaggeration on this album; it’s all real, and he brings you down right with him.

  9. I think the Serge Gainsbourg song you mean is “Cargo Culte”.

    • “Melody”, “L’hotel particulier” and “Cargo Culte” share a similar melody that reoccurs throughout Histoire de Melody Nelson, but it seems appropriate to compare “Paper Tiger” to the middle track since it has the most brooding, ambiguous mood and the strings don’t swell intensely as they do in “Cargo Culte”.

  10. Definitely tied with 808′s and Heartbreak for best breakup up album of the new millennium. SImply a classic

  11. For the record, this is my favorite Beck album, and one of my favorite albums of all time. Also, I just listened to Riverman, and that is an effing SPOT ON call.

  12. Paper Tiger is still my favorite song from the album. The build up and somber tone really convey the emotional roller coaster the album displays.

  13. I guess I’ll risk the downvotes (sighs). I don’t love this record. I never did. So many people do and I’m just at a loss. If Midnite Vultures was Beck as Prince, than Sea Change is Beck as Gordon Lightfoot. I do like slow, contemplative Beck, but the thing I always appreciated about him was the variety contained within his albums. Sea Change is the only Beck album that feels monochromatic. If some of these songs (and there are some good ones, don’t get me wrong) had been interspersed with Midnite Vultures or Guero, I feel those albums would have been so much stronger, but a solid dose of sadsack acoustic Beck was just too much for me.

    • My initial reaction to the album was exactly this. I listened to it twice through and shelved it for a month or so. He was one of my favorite artists, but I wasn’t interested at first in the slow, even, sad tunes.

      However, I revisited it and said I would give it an honest chance–to listen to it 4-5 times through without listening to anything else. The subtleties began to appear and the realization that this album was very different from anything he had done (with hindshight, has ever done) was memorable.

      At this point, Sea Change to me is an essential work in Beck’s collection. I may not visit it as often as his other eclectic and livelier albums, but when I do, I’m reeled back in.

      • I don’t think it’s a matter of not giving it a chance. I’ve listened to this album. A lot. I’ve returned to it. Truthfully, it’s a very pretty album. But it’s also very staid. To me, it’s the sound of Beck “the important artiste” which seems, well…slightly like posturing. I appreciate all these songs individually, but taken as a whole, it’s a chore – like I’m SUPPOSED to like it (the Radiohead conundrum – capital I important and canonized prior to release date). Like I said before – if you take 30% of this and 70% of Midnite Vultes, you’d have a really magnetic, dynamic album. But Sea Change on it’s own, despite all the sweepingly beautiful production and maybe it’s “necessity” within the Beck canon, is the least compelling record of his career up to that point.

        Also, I must have blacked out and missed the part where everyone forgot about the timeless dominance of Odelay.

  14. I’m a sucker for the funky and irony drenched ‘Odelay’, and ‘The Information’. I love the strings on Sea Change but I can’t listen to that album beginning to end if you payed me. It’s a little to ‘woe is me’ for my taste. That aside, Beck is pure genius.

  15. Becks best album. As big of a fan of him as I am, I dont think he’s ever equaled the highs of this album.
    Very Nick Drake like on this one.
    This album was my soundtrack for awhile, sort of defines anxiety and angst and self doubt. I remember listening to Golden Age, on my bed, eyes closed, in the dark, and felt this religious experience, near the end of it, and felt an out of body experience.

    Doesnt get much better or sadder than Golden Age, Lost Cause, or Guess Im doing Fine (on which he decidedly DOESNT sound fine)

    Gotta drive all night, just to feel like your’e ok. Let the desert wind, cool your aching head, let the weight of the world, drift away instead. These days I barely get by, I dont even try.

  16. I myself prefer Mountain Goats’ “Tallahassee” to “Sea Change,” if we’re talking albums about struggling couples.

    Understand though, I do find this album to be special.

  17. I got this album when I was 21, and had just broken up with my girlfriend of 6 years a couple days before (she went off with a 17-year-old douche bag). Needless to say, I listened to this album a lot, and it was misery. But oh, the beautiful misery. It’s been a bit hard to listen to ever since.

    Can’t believe it’s been 10 years; amazing how when you get older, that much time is still a while, but it’s really not too far behind you. Either that or I just haven’t grown up much.

    • and yes, this tour he had the Flaming Lips as a back-up band. that was pretty amazing. they appeared on Conan together too, and Wayne sat on the floor wrapped in a blanket with Ted Danson, who played the triangle.

  18. Even though I didn’t discover this album until a few years after it came out, it was incredibly formative for me during my teenage years, and I consider it one of my most treasured albums. No matter how I felt, I could put this album on and just get lost in its majesty and intricacies.

  19. Outside of Animal Collective, I think this must be one of the things that I’m furthest from the hip consensus on. I was looking forward to it when it came out and was totally disappointed to find out I outright didn’t like it. Everything people like about it I’m the opposite. The production is horrible and flat to me, and the songs are pretty flat, too, save two or three of them (Golden Age & Guess I’m Doing Fine stand out).

    I’ve no problem acknowledging that he nails the numbness of a bad relationship well, but I don’t want to listen to a whole album that’s numb – Blood on the Tracks was so god because it both lyrically and musically ran the gamut of emotions associated with a big break up.

    And what’s this about break-up albums being passe? Good ones come out on the reg – Jack White and even Norah Jones both put out solid ones this year alone, and apparently Jens Lekman, too.

    Also, Beck’s 90s output was regularly awesome, Midnight Vultures very much included.

  20. He still hasn’t topped this good’en. It’s the tittyparade down the main st. of decetown.

    FUN FACT: the b-side to “it’s all in your mind” OG release in 1995 was “Whiskey can-can” and Sea Change was inspired by beck’s ex-lady’s infidelities (duh) with a d-bag from the band “Whiskey Biscuit”.

    OMG guys – whiskey inspired?

    • I was going to mention the same about It’s All in Your Mind/Whiskey-can-can. The 2002 version exemplifies the production style, good or bad, when compared to “Whiskey can-can.”

      Donnytilla may have hard tits, but a very soft heart.

    • Being cheated on is hard enough, but if the guy is in a band called Whiskey Biscuit? That’s just fucking brutal. If you’re gonna be cuckolded, you have to at least hope the guy’s band has a cool name. No wonder this album is so sad.

  21. “Lost cause”, “Life on Mars”… , oh no, I will not go down that road, but it’s the SOUND of the songs, that gives you that feeling of other peoples art can be part of your identity.

  22. Beck makes me think Scientology might not be that bad after all.

  23. What befuddles is how some critics totally did not get this at the time of release. A real classic.

  24. a great record and a great time period in my life! I would fall asleep to this every night

  25. I think Sea Change became popular 5 years later, when the cover and some songs were included on every Mac in Apple stores. I’d love to see the SoundScan figures for sales-by-year. The initial release was met with disappointment but I think the appreciation has deservedly grown over the years.

  26. I thought Mutations was way better, he’s considerably less interesting when trying to be ‘serious’. I listened to this a lot though, at the time, wasn’t terrible. I had no idea so many people liked it so much.

  27. This is honestly the only album by Beck that i love. It’s incredibly well written and upsetting and beautiful. It finally proved to me that Beck had the ability to write tunes that meant something. However I take great umbrage at your assertion that it was the last great break up album. Both of Bon Iver’s albums, but especially for emma, are break up albums. And they are fucking killer. Honestly, the death of a relationship is better than heroin for a good song writer. I just wish Chris Martin and Gwenny would split up so that Coldplay could have not just a good break up, but a good album period.

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