During a recent discussion about break up albums, Beck’s Sea Change was championed as one of the worst albums to soundtrack emotional despondency. For those who haven’t heard it, imagine what the audio anti-thesis of La Cucaracha would sound like and you’d be half way there. As a weird adjunct to this conversation, I was then challenged to listen to the album repeatedly without cracking and to remain my normal, stoic self. At the time, this seemed like a reasonably conducive means to dealing with my own emotional turmoil, having recently broken things off with someone.
The rules were simple; I had to listen to the album at least three times a day for a week without fail, with no musical respite.
Sea change (2002), was recorded over a two-month period with producer Nigel Godrich. With themes described on Wikipedia as “heartbreak and desolation, solitude and loneliness”, it’s comparable to a musical bargain bucket of despair; meaty enough to fill the initial burning hunger of desolation, but arguably, a terrible thing to digest solo. A glance at the track list reveals titles such as “Guess I’m doing fine”, “Lost cause”, “Lonesome tears”, “Side of the road” and my personal favourite, “Already dead”, all of which were sufficient enough to subdue even the most eternal of optimists. So sombre was this album and such a departure from his previous work, that The Face ran an open letter to him, asking if everything was OK.
“It has the least sense of humour”
Beck (Sep 2002) for an interview with Uncut on Sea Change
The “Sexx laws” extraordinaire had cited the breakup with his fiancée, Leigh Limon as the main influence on the album. Upon completing the Midnite Vultures tour, Limon ended their nine-year relationship, three weeks before his 30th birthday, as she had been cheating on him with a member of LA-based band Whiskey Biscuit (who are totally shit FYI – I checked). He wrote most of the album’s 12 songs in a week but shelved them, deciding only to record them a few years later.
After reading about the album, I felt a preemptive sense of defeat but had already committed to this pointless, masochistic cause. Largely, I was adamant that I couldn’t have felt much worse at that point in time and yearned to wallow in much pain as possible, for maximum effect. This was the week I listened to Sea Change, effectively, non-stop.
“Music should be cathartic. It articulates experiences. Certain songs capture a situation which can be satisfying but almost painful.” Beck
9AM: One bar into “Lost Cause” on a Monday morning, packed like pre-rot sardines on the Hammersmith and circle line and it feels like I’m on the biggest comedown of my life. I start to think whether I’d ever possess the capacity to love someone as much as he loved her and the question fills me with both an unsettling melancholy and resurgence of belief, that maybe that kind of love does exist outside the peripheries of everyday banality.
10AM: It was just gas. I’m ok now.
11 AM: Someone in a meeting accidentally, but definitely on purpose says the phrase “rectal engagement”. This magnificent oversight brings me no joy, as I’ve already listened to “Guess I’m doing fine” about 15 times already this morning. I feel like all the colour has drained from my life and every hot beverage starts to taste a bit like warm, sugary piss.
3.56 PM: I long for the comforting touch of some prosaic figure to wrap it’s blubbery, shapeless arms around me and tell me that I’m wonderful and that I could have it so much better.
4.15 PM: I’ve just tried to shit out all the sadness that I feel, after listening to a medley of “End of the day” and “Lonesome tears”. It’s not my best work, but I accept it with a subdued wave of tenacity and attempt to move onwards and upwards. After listening to “It’s all in your mind” on repeat for an hour, the song starts to make me physically lethargic. I try to make some coffee because I’m so chronically tired, but there’s no milk left in the office fridge. I over-emotionally react to this and stick my head in the fridge/freezer to try to hide the onslaught of tears like some sort of Smack-The-Pony Plath.
6.30PM: I have a date. I consider rearranging, as I’m worried that at the rate this week is going that I might end up screaming at him when he doesn’t get me a triple shot of whisky at the bar. I coyly put on “Little One“, but I’m not sure whether I can be bothered with the rigmarole of trying to be all fancy and lovely, so I end up applying a sloppy layer of red lipstick on the way out of the house. In some sub-Freudian way, I’ve managed to make my mouth look like a swollen, lop-sided vagina. On the tube in, I listen to “Paper tigers” and the lyric “There’s one road back to civilisation, but there’s no road back to you” haunts me the entire evening.
9PM: Whilst waiting at a bar in Liverpool Street, I listen to “Side of the road“, the opening lyric to which is “Something better than this, someplace I’d like to go“. I pause to give a mental high-five to the gods of irony. The barman has a nice voice, an Angelique Houtkamp tattoo and a face. I think he could be the one as he pours me an overtly generous double whisky and coke. I imagine us moving into a cosy little flat together, maybe even with a cat called Žižek. I am not remotely surprised that even this imaginary version of my myself, is also an unbearably pretentious cunt.
11.39PM: After staring at him for 5 seconds longer than what would be considered socially acceptable, he looks at me with a resigned pity, the way that people look at German tourists trying to go down an escalator travelling upwards.
7.40PM: After the consumption of a potentially lethal dose of MSG at a Chinese restaurant in Soho, I imagine how serene I would look as a modern day Juliet in a prawn cracker casket. It’s my Dad’s 58th and everyone else is in moderately good spirits. I question why we celebrate a day where someone edges a year closer to their eventual death; however, after 3 glasses of wine, I blurt this out at the table. Unfortunately, there is no accompanying Larry David staccatoed-horn-track to make light of the situation, so I excuse myself to chain smoke outside.
8.45 PM: On the terrace, I start listening to “Round the bend“, which is apt, as I think I’ve actually gone crazy.
6.45 AM: I discover that I’d set my alarm the previous night to wake up to “Already dead“. I am a complete emotional wreck and have somehow forgotten to wash any pants. I’ve also developed some sort of increased sensitivity to daylight. There is no detergent left, so I can’t wash any pants and I can’t go out of the house because I have no pants and I find myself stuck in horrible pants-22 situation of my own volition. I fall asleep listening to the album, festering in my own self-pity. At the zenith of my misery, I felt that I could have never willingly listened to this album again and it dulled me with a weird despondency. Had I somehow become attached to the album? Possibly. Did I become increasingly anxious as Sunday our last day together, drew closer? Probably.
I was unsure whether the whole experience was comparable to the loss of a great love or the end of an abusive relationship, in which one of us had ended up at a half-way house and the other with a 5-year driving ban. After spending a week trapped in my own menagerie of shit and despair, I had managed to purge every suppressed emotion from the crevasses of my little black heart. It was a small victory. Because those are the only kind you can hope for when every other phrase, in every other song, refers you back to someone you’re desperately trying to forget. Whilst listening to “The Golden age” I finish one last, solitary, incredibly clichéd cigarette outside my window. I say goodbye to a hellish week, comforted by a quiet confidence that the following one, without him around, will be easier. Or at the very least that it’ll be OK, by proxy of not having to listen to Sea Change on repeat.