Beck Hansen was sad. So was I. All things considered, this arrangement worked out pretty well for both of us.
Not that Beck had any reason to celebrate the end of his nine-year relationship with fiancée Leigh Limon — a breakup occasioned by his discovery, just weeks before his 30th birthday, that she was having an affair. That her paramour was in a band called Whiskey Biscuit is a real insult-to-injury scenario, but if Beck found any humor in the situation, it didn’t translate to the flood of depressive songs that flowed out of him at the dawn of the 21st century. Comparisons to Blood On The Tracks abounded, but even at his most devastated, Dylan never slathered it on this thick. Whatever sarcasm was baked into tracks like “The Golden Age” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine” was entirely bleak and unsmiling, not ha-ha funny or even slyly self-effacing. Autumn de Wilde’s solemn portrait of Beck on the cover of Sea Change sets a tone that does not let up for 52 minutes.
For some listeners, that deadly serious posture rendered Sea Change unbearably dour. But I was weeks into my freshman year of college in a picturesque Ohio small town, still hung up on a girl who’d gone to school a thousand miles away, so the album’s exquisite desolation met me exactly where I was at. It’s embarrassing in hindsight: We didn’t date that long, and it was never anywhere close to serious, but there’s no reasoning with the feelings of teenage boys. You know what’s not embarrassing in hindsight, though? Sea Change. The album was released 20 years ago this Saturday — during the first week of fall, as was only appropriate for some of the most autumnal music ever recorded — and even though that old adolescent longing is long gone, this music sounds as incredible today as it did back then.
The title presumably refers to the life-disrupting end of a relationship that spanned basically Beck’s entire twenties. But the album marked a sea change within his recording career too. He’d put out downbeat records before, most recently 1998’s Mutations, but he was coming off his most euphorically silly release to date, 1999’s cartoon disco-funk odyssey Midnite Vultures. The closing track, “Debra,” is an epic Prince pastiche in which he croons in falsetto about his burning desire for a threesome with a woman and her sister. Listening straight through his discography takes you directly from “Debra” to “The Golden Age,” a song that could pass for a parody of post-breakup resignation if it didn’t sound so graceful, elegant, and sublime. After years of party-starting genre-jumble and slacker joie de vivre, you can understand why this heavy-handed sad boi routine gave some fans whiplash.
Beck released some sad songs in the ’90s, but he studiously kept his personal life out of his lyrics, opting instead for the poetic and absurd. Even a self-lacerating ballad like Mutations highlight “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” is vague enough to mean just about anything. Now, in an effort to exorcise his demons and connect with a world full of crestfallen saps, he was baring his soul without a hint of irony. Such straight-faced sorrow was key to the album’s appeal. I’m not sure it would have maintained its impact if Beck had ever stopped to laugh at himself. Instead, Sea Change inhabits a levity-free headspace, an emotional state that’s unhealthy to maintain longterm but often must be passed through in the aftermath of a split in order to properly mourn what’s been lost. It is the sound of a fog that will lift eventually, even if it seems eternal in the moment. “These days, I barely get by,” he laments on “The Golden Age,” as his band conjures the feeling of a drive to nowhere. “I don’t even try.”
Beck turned to a team of trusted collaborators to translate his dejection into a vivid world of sound. Crucially, he linked back up with Mutations producer Nigel Godrich, whose work with Radiohead had demonstrated his skills within dreary emotional terrain. (Songs like “Paper Tiger,” with its subtly funky bass groove and darting orchestral strings, seemingly presaged Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool.) Beck also recruited his father, the composer and arranger David Campbell, to slather these songs in symphonic splendor, like clouds forming into hallucinatory shapes at sunset. His band members, all seasoned pros, made sure the music moved and breathed even when burdened by the weight of the world; in particular, drummers Joey Waronker and James Gadson play with such color and pizzazz that I sometimes, against all odds, break out into a smile upon encountering their tumbling fills.
There’s a consistent vibe and texture across the tracklist, a lush, impressionistic, lightly psychedelic form of downcast chamber-pop that makes Beck’s turmoil feel cinematic at every turn. But Sea Change is surprisingly diverse within those parameters. There are country-rockers on which Smokey Hormel’s guitar takes on the weeping quality of pedal steel against a wash of synths, Wurlitzer, and Clavinet, sometimes topped off by high lonesome harmonica. “It’s All In Your Mind,” originally a barebones indie-pop tune on 1994’s One Foot In The Grave, takes on the gentle suppleness of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled. “Round The Bend” turns the orchestra pit into a pit of despair. With four separate musicians playing its central piano line, “Sunday Sun” shimmers its way toward a grandiose chorus and a noisy climax, while the baroque power-pop of “Little One” is a link in the chain between Big Star and Grizzly Bear. “Side Of The Road” ends the album with loosely unraveling country-blues, as if the band is stretching out for bed and Beck is finally laying his sadness to rest.
Across the board, these songs spotlight Beck’s baritone as a powerful instrument in its own right. Amidst the twinkling beauty of “Lost Cause,” it’s meek yet robust, sounding tender and weary on lines like “I’m tired of fighting/ Fighting for a lost cause.” He eases into every word on the gliding “End Of The Day,” casually confessing his pain: “Had to act like I didn’t even care/ But I did so I got stranded standing there.” Elsewhere, he really lets it rip, like the Beast in his castle pining for Belle with an angry roar. If you’re inclined to write off Beck’s performance here as a caricature of overblown self-pity, there is ammunition for your argument: “Press my face up to the window/ To see how warm it is inside,” for instance. But there’s real pathos in Beck’s performance. He plays to the strengths of those immaculate arrangements, breathing life into somber dirges that might otherwise fall flat.
For his tour supporting Sea Change, Beck hired the Flaming Lips, coming off their own moody metamorphosis Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, as his backing band. Although there’s plenty of ache in the Lips’ music, it was a weird fit given Wayne Coyne’s goofball ringmaster stage persona, and the band did not come close to matching the grandeur of their studio counterparts. Late show crowd-pleasers “Where It’s At” and “Devils Haircut” didn’t jibe with the mostly low-key setlist. I found myself wishing I was across town watching my local soccer team win their first trophy. But Sea Change the album stuck with me. Two decades later, it hasn’t let go.
Despite some misfires along the way, Beck released a lot of good-to-great music in the 21st century, and he became a surprise Album Of The Year winner at the Grammys with 2014’s Morning Phase, a contented sequel to Sea Change that proves even the heaviest heartbreak can evaporate eventually. His work in the mid-’90s was truly game-changing. But for me, Beck peaked around the turn of the millennium with that incongruous pairing of Midnite Vultures and Sea Change. The former is the apex of giddy ridiculousness, an indulgent, ecstatic fantasy that represents Beck at his most contagiously fun. You could write off the latter as an eclectic alternative pioneer’s cynical pivot into so-called maturity, like a comedian starring in a prestige drama in order to gain industry respect. But Sea Change is too earnest to be read as anything but a genuine expression of Beck’s broken heart, translated into music so impeccable that it ultimately elicits joy. I can’t think of a more spectacular way to wallow.