Throughout his long career, Beck has worn a lot of hats – the slacker, the experimental producer, the goof, the singer-songwriter, the ironist. As elusive and ever-changing as he continues to be, there was a moment in time in which he allowed us to see him with no hats at all, no gimmicks, no tricks.
In 2002, Beck released Sea Change, one of the most catastrophic, most intimate, most shattering break-up albums in pop music. In other words, it’s more-or-less a still-beating broken heart in the form of a compact disc. It’s been ten years since then, which is reason enough to pull the record off the shelf, dust it off, open up a bottle of red wine (you’ll be needing at least one each), and ponder upon life, loneliness, and that crazy little thing called love.
In 2000, Beck threw a party for his 30th birthday. His girlfriend of nine years, designer Leigh Limon, didn’t make the guest list. The widely-spread rumour is that she was caught out cheating on him with a member of LA band, Whiskey Biscuit. Beck never publicly talked about it but, whatever the reason, their relationship was dust. What was Beck’s loss proved to be a significant gain for music world, as the music chameleon emerged with one of the most heartbreaking albums of the year.
Sea Change’s content was emotionally arresting, but the impact of the record was largely due to its complete divergence from Beck’s previous material. Particularly given that three years earlier, Mr. Campbell was channelling the plastic end of Prince’s sex drive and neon mimicry of Berlin clubs, in the mime rap and innuendo of 1999’s Midnite Vultures.
A Sea Change, indeed. Gone was the dripping sarcasm, the ironic pop culture references, the nonsensical wordplay and experimental lo-fi beats. Right from the deftly strummed acoustic guitar of ‘Golden Age’ that opens the album, it was clear that this was a distinctly new and distinct sonic character from Beck.
He had departed from the careless, ‘slacker’ persona that first took him to fame (with 1996’s Odelay), and stepped into a strange, unseen maturity, with the nonchalance of simply slipping into a new suit.
What remained was a deeply personal, kaleidoscopic examination into the science of his own heartbreak: the torturous longing, creeping apathy, bitter frustration, emotional exhaustion, and a warm sense of catharsis.
At the time of the break-up, Beck penned the twelve songs of Sea Change and left them in cold storage for two years.
“I sat on these songs for a couple of years, because I didn’t really want to talk about my personal life,” Beck explained in an interview with the New York Daily News. “I’m more interested in focusing on music and not really strewing my baggage across the public lobby. But I ultimately felt like the songs speak to an experience that’s common, and that most people find themselves in. It didn’t seem to be self-indulgent at the end of the day.”
The sudden button-hook move of doubling back in an unexpected direction of seriousness caught fans and critics off guard. After a stack of albums packed with ironic phrases along the lines of ‘like a giant dildo crushing the sun’, the simplicity and sincerity of the lyrics on Sea Change was overwhelmingly stark in comparison.
Although often compared to the muted blues and psych folk of 1998’s Mutations, in a 2008 interview with Pitchfork, the shifting songsman said it was closer to the sound of 1994’s “One Foot in the Grave and more representative of what I was doing [in the early days].”
Despite such references, the tear-jerking honesty of Sea Change wasn’t wholly apparent in Beck’s previous work, though he insists that the urge for sincerity had always existed within him. Starting out at the ripe age of 14 in the underground punk scene of L.A.: “There wasn’t any place for me to come in and play a very personal acoustic ballad,” the performer told Another Mag in 2002. “That was a side of me I had to suppress. It took me a lot of years to bring those songs out and have the confidence to do them.”
It unfortunately would take serious heartbreak for that confidence to emerge. The one theme that Sea Change is so tightly wrapped around, with the then-32-year-old performer finding purpose in sharpening his lyrical arrows to ensure the most devastating effect.
Each song on Sea Change stares down his personal catastrophe from a different point of view. In the tortured ‘Lonesome Tears’, he asks: ‘how could this love ever-turning/Never turn its eye on me?’ The clincher in ‘Paper Tiger’ lies in the one line of Beck’s hopeless realisation: ‘there’s one road back to civilisation/But there’s no road back to you.’
Finally, frustration and despair melts into exhausted defeat within ‘Lost Cause’, in which Beck admits: ‘I’m tired of fighting/Fighting for a lost cause.”
“I wanted economy in the lyrics, and I wanted the songwriting to be very, very straightforward,” Beck said in an interview with Time, that likened the multi-platinum performer to a blues balladeer. “I was trying to walk that line where its not too clever. Just pure emotion… just trying to be direct and concise, which is all a discipline. That’s the kind of songwriting I really respect. It’s almost harder for me.”
Sea Change was recorded over a short period of just over three weeks, as if Beck wanted to exorcise his demons as swiftly as possible. Along with his band, he settled into L.A.’s Ocean Way Studios in March 2002, and the cheap D.I.Y. gear, turntables and samplers were swapped for mournful pedal-steel, gentle acoustic guitars and a small orchestra.
The careful, thoughtful production and rich instrumentation was a far step from the Mellow Gold days, when Beck recorded his first hit ‘Loser’ at home with a $20 microphone from Radio Shack.
Beck chose Nigel Godrich to produce the album, who had worked with him before on 1998’s Mutations, an acoustic-heavy album that shares strands of stylistic similarities with Sea Change. Referred to as the ‘sixth member’ of Radiohead, Godrich had been previously sought after by the likes of U2, Pavement and R.E.M., and was known for his ability to create extremely lush, dense layers of sound.
Worried about the overall sonics coming across as too clean, Beck decided to record a lot of the vocals and instrumentation live, often just sticking with the second take. “There’s mistakes, rough edges and a certain grit and gravel to it that rescues it from being easy-listening country,” said Beck.
There was a certain grit and gravel emerging from Beck’s vocals as well as his voice audibly matured with new-found depth. “Before we recorded we listened to Mutations and his voice sounded like Mickey Mouse,” said Godrich to Time on the discovery that Beck’s range had dropped. “Now when he opens his mouth, a canyonesque vibration comes out. It’s quite remarkable. He has an amazing tone.”