My #1 album of 2002 showed up in the top spot of plenty of critics’ lists as well. Beck’s Sea Change was just that, a complete change of direction for an artist better known for hip-hop beats and stream-of-consciousness lyrics.
This album, inspired by the end of a relationship, supports the theory that heartbreak is often the best muse. Beck is in full wallow mode here, drowning his sad-sack lyrics in waves of ambient strings and acoustic guitar.
Three albums of the twenty I’m featuring in this series are what I would call heartbreak records. They stem from and focus on the end of a relationship. The first is Beck’s 2002 Sea Change.
This album represented a major stylistic and lyrical shift for Beck, whose previous work blended hip-hop, funk and folk-rock and featured absurdist hipster poetry. Sea Change was a mostly acoustic affair with straightforward lyrics about love and loss. And despite all of the inventive ground-breaking music he’d released to that point, it felt immediately like the best thing he’d ever done.
Beck’s fifth studio album, 2002’s Sea Change, remains his finest achievement, and I consider it one of the best albums I own. It’s up there with Blood On the Tracks and The Road to Ensenada as one of the greatest break-up albums of all-time.
Stylistically, Sea Change see-sawed back to the somber acoustic mood of Mutations, the polar opposite of the frenzied eclecticism of Midnite Vultures. Both musically and (especially) lyrically, Beck is at his most straight-forward on this album. It’s as if all the genre blending and cryptic lyrics on his previous records were a mask and he’s finally allowing his listeners to look him directly in the eye. And what we see there can best be described as beautiful heartbreak.
It’s pretty well-established that breakup albums are often better than stuff written when the artist is loving life. Great art comes from turmoil and pain. Whether it’s Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love or Lyle Lovett’s The Road to Ensenada, heartbreak invariably results in a musician’s best work.
Beck’s Sea Change is no exception.