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15 Years Ago: Beck Shines Through the Sadness on ‘Sea Change’

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Beck plucked the title for his eighth album, Sea Change, from a lyric in one of the record’s songs. On “Little One,” he sings, “Drown, drown / Sailors run aground / In a sea change nothing is safe.”

And nothing that Beck planned for Sea Change was safe. The alt rock hero who became a superstar via gleeful/ironic embrace of hip-hop, funk and electro-pop was turning inward. Sure, he had crafted softer, acoustic music before (see 1998’s Mutations), but he’d never written so directly about emotion, creating ballad after ballad about heartbreak. He’d never put both feet in the grave.

The impetus for these songs was the end of a long-term relationship. Weeks before his 30th birthday in 2000, Beck discovered that his fiancée and partner of nine years, Leigh Limon, had been cheating on him with another musician. Beck entered a dark period, writing a flurry of songs about lost love, disappointment, betrayal and melancholy. Deciding that this was either too painful or indulgent to see release, he let the material be.

“Songs sit in my head for a while,” he told Time in 2002. “I have dozens in there, songs from eight years ago that I’ve written but never recorded. After a while, I just sort of decide to record them.”

It wasn’t too long before Beck returned to these tunes, recording them with producer Nigel Godrich (with whom he’d worked before and would again) in the spring of 2002. Beck explained to Godrich his intentions for these lovelorn tunes.

Listen to “Guess I’m Doing Fine”

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“I just wanted the record to be simple and clean,” he said. “I wanted economy in the lyrics, and I wanted the songwriting to be very, very straightforward.”

And so, Beck, Godrich and a cast of players (including guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and drummer Joey Waronker, among others) set about carefully embellishing these sad-sack laments, with lyrics such as “It’s only you that I’m losing / Guess I’m doing fine” and “We’re just holding onto nothing / To see how long nothing lasts.” Beck’s dad, David Campbell, arranged the strings for a new version of “It’s All in Your Mind.”

In recording these songs, Beck and the musicians brought twangy guitar licks and ghostly synthesizers, twinkling grace and soulful glory to such pathos. These weren’t songs by which to slit your wrists, these were dispatches from a survivor, brought to greater life at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles.

Another strength of the material, according to Godrich, was Beck’s newly deep voice. Now in his 30s, the singer’s voice had grown deeper.

“Before we recorded, we listened to Mutations, and his voice sounded like Mickey Mouse. His range has dropped,” Godrich noted. “Now when he opens his mouth, a canyonesque vibration comes out. It’s quite remarkable. He has amazing tone.”

Listen to “Lost Cause”

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Although Beck’s record label wasn’t necessarily thrilled at the prospect of a new album of sad, slow ballads, Geffen let him proceed unfettered and released the finished album on Sept. 24, 2002. Sea Change didn’t deliver any big hit singles (although the brooding “Lost Cause” performed well), but it was practically greeted by fans and critics as a masterpiece. Rolling Stone gave the album a rare five-star review. The rock press plastered the album over year’s best lists, comparing the disc to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Beck devotees swooned over the opportunity to get to know the “real” Beck.

“It’s an interesting question: are we more ourselves when we’re happy or are we more ourselves when we’re sad?” Beck asked The Age. “We all have a bit of both. People are fluid. We ride up and down these emotions all the time. That’s the human experience.”

Upon release, Beck promoted Sea Change by hitting the road with the Flaming Lips, who both opened for him and served as his backing band. Along the way, the album hit No. 8 on the Billboard charts and eventually went platinum (greatly surprising industry analysts). While Odelay still looms large, there are many who consider Sea Change Beck’s shining moment.

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