Sea Change (2002)
Sometimes, an artist’s greatest work just turns out to be the one that is entirely unique and detached from the rest of their body of work. Given, now that Sea Change has a sister album inMorning Phase, it might seem to not be as much of a total standalone peak in Beck’s career. But still. It is. In the context of its 2002 release, this was a different level than anything else Beck had worked on. Sure, Mutations had been the somber singer-songwriter album, and sure, there was the occasional blur between serious and jocular Beck in the past, but Sea Change still felt like this other animal entirely. Inspired by the dissolution of a nine year relationship, it’s one of the great breakup albums of all time. People compare it to Blood On The Tracks, and that’s some heavy stuff. Personally, its temperament has always reminded me a little of Blur’s 13. This is an album of massive, overwhelming emotion, comprised of acoustic songs like “Paper Tiger” and “Lonesome Tears” that feel like epic catalogs of grief and isolation, their string arrangements and choruses peeling open in a way that makes the idea of lost love feel all-important. And, I guess, on some level it is.
The story with Sea Change is that it’s peak earnestness for Beck. It’s easily his most nakedly emotional album. Some criticize it, though, claiming that its grasp for emotional profundity is too much of a grasp, that its extensive orchestration drowns out the honesty. This is part of what makes this album so special though. Contrary to what the lyrics or mood of Sea Change might suggest, Beck’s performativity is still at play here. It’s still there in just how extensive that orchestration is, just how over the top sad that chorus to “Lonesome Tears” is. I believe that Beck really suffered as a result of this breakup and that these are very honest songs. But knowing how he works as an artist, I also feel like there must be, whether subconscious or conscious, some understanding on his part of what a “breakup” album is supposed to sound like. This is his interpretation and performance of that concept the same he’s done with all his other variations throughout his career. There are a few understated songs here, but the part of Sea Change that envelops you and stays with you is the sheer size of most of these songs. Beck’s still subverting conventions: taking the form that’s supposed to be the most quiet and introspective, committing to that, but then blowing out that ethos into the music that remains his grandest.
Beck didn’t want to record these songs at one point, not wanting to catalog his own personal relationship trials. Later, he realized the universality of it. This is the brilliance of Sea Changerelative to the other albums in Beck’s career. There’s a universality to Odelay and Guero and all his other various permutations. There’s the universality of how we consume art and culture, taking little bits and pieces out of the atmosphere and incorporating them into ourselves in some way. Beck tapped into that, he tapped into quirky human experience and perception and taste and how that all plays together in a big cultural sense. The paradox of Beck’s career is how he built his career on each work being unique, surprising, theoretically standing alone in a catalog where that doesn’t distinguish you, and yet the impact of these records is inextricably reliant on the existence of the others. More and more, Beck’s career looks like a tapestry, a collage of its own built out of all the little mini collages he’s crafted over the years. Sea Change will always occupy a crucial position in all of that. Its universality is a different version than all the rest of that: it’s the universality of a specific moment of human emotion, played out on a large enough scale as to make a movie out of our lives for all of us. It’s the beating, desperate heart at the core of the big, crazy mess of Beck’s career.