No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.
Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.
*“That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.
Seal’s BEST ALBUM : 1998’s “Human Being”
One more cherry on this cake : One of Seal’s top 5 most streamed songs on Spotify is a pasted together version of he and Frank Sinatra “duetting” on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Okay. Enough.
Time to push all that aside and focus on something else. Something really, really good that came at a really, really bad time. Seal’s third album “Human Being” was released in November of 1998 just as the full on Britney/ Backstreet/Max Martin/TRL era was making it’s insane ascent. By then Seal was 35 years old and when it came to pop music in 1998, that was the same as being a senior citizen. “Human Being” with it’s lush orchestration, ballads and overtly sad subtext was not remotely in step with what was happening. It was not awesomely sweet rainbow candy, it was more like a half empty glass of water, sitting on a window sill, with rain pouring outside. It was a total lament…but also, it was totally gorgeous.
“Come be sad with me luv”
Why it’s his Pet Sounds :
1.Grandiose, widescreen instrumental backdrops.
2.Seal’s gigantically beautiful raspy voice.
3.Existential wrestling ( with bonus weary resignation).
4.Frustration and befuddlement about this life and the people in it.
5.Cryptic lyrical content.
About that last thought, here’s the deal: Seal’s words can sound as vague as a watercolor painting of a freakin’ lake…as in you kind’ve know what he means, because the song titles are pretty leading, and there are bits of coherent emotion within the songs but overall the feeling being expressed is not 100% specific.
Nearly every song is a ballad and the musical foundation for the majority of them is chilly and electronic, with some guitar flourishes, and cinematic strings to heighten the overall drama…but even with that abounding heaviness, make no mistake, these are pop songs, and as such the tunes themselves are strikingly memorable ( lotta hooks). There’s really no filler.
- When it comes to his own songs, Seal isn’t a party guy. Seal is more of an emotional apocalypse kind of guy. Here are lines from the respective chorus’s of 3 of his biggest singles prior to “Human Being” in the 90’s : “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy“, “It’s just a prayer for the dying“, “Is there still a part of you that wants to live“. In keeping with this tradition, the main line in the chorus of the title track here is “We’re mere human beings, we die“. The soaring vocal makes the fact that we are all irrelevant, easily replaceable dust balls desperately in need of love seem panoramically glorious which is a real achievement considering how depressing the sentiment is. This one was dedicated to Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls who had died not long before but you can read a lot of different things into it’s cold and sinister groove with a hook and it stands as one of Seal’s finest moments. ( * note: the album title is “Human Being” while the single is “Human Beings“, plural. Confusing but there you go).
- “When a Man is Wrong” is an anthem about the old yin/yang, angel/devil, right/wrong, open/afraid relationship shiz that confuses and drives most of the planet and has one of those outstretched arms, billowing white shirt, standing on a cliff overlooking the sea style codas. In keeping with the over the top theme, if pushed to describe this song in one word it would be majestic. This is a majestic man of a song.
- ….but truthfully, it’s hard, and maybe unfair, to single out specific songs as the highlights since, as alluded to earlier, they all kind of blend together to make one beautiful thing. That said “Still Love Remains”, a giveth and taketh away tune about how someone can be ruined if you take it away, but life goes on and you’re both still alive, is especially handsome ….and Seal’s vocal on the acoustic driven bridge is a swoon inducing marvel.
- “No Easy Way” feels like Seal singing directly into your ear about how things are over, over, over, but he sent you some “Rilke by hand, hoping you would understand “, even though he wouldn’t normally do that kind of thing but he still loves you even though he is maybe still a little pissed about how it all went down. This song has a heartbeat and it is very sad.
- I have no idea what “Lost My Faith” is about. Seriously. Someone may be calling it a day but they’ll be there if you trip up… I think, but at the end of the day it doesn’t fucking matter, it’s got beautiful eyes, and has one of those patented Seal panoramic, soaring chorus’s and you need nothing more.
- Everything feels connected sound-wise, like all the songs are holding hands with each other. In fact, I used to get them mixed up all the time, so similar were they in tempo and construction. Which is to say “Human Being” is actually filled to the gills with swoon inducing marvels. “State of Grace” (topic: uncertainty), “Colour”(topic: be here now), “Just Like You Said”(topic: losing you) all fit the bill and fill the heart.
- Okay, said there was no filler but “Princess” is close, as in it’s not up to the standard of the rest of the album . Seal sings “Daddy’s little lemon ain’t all she’s meant to be” and then uses the word “bitter” in the next verse, and well, yeah. Thankfully it’s the shortest thing on the record, with a running time of less than 2 minutes, so let’s just pretend it’s not there.
The liner notes in this thing were voluminous and because the primary formats at the time of release were cd and cassette, they were very hard to read without going insane. The text was absolutely minuscule and the content consisted of email correspondences between Seal and friends encouraging each other’s creative impulses and saying what a good time they had the night before, as well as lyrical excerpts.
Here are some of the liner notes. They are very small.
You don’t need to read them. They won’t enhance your experience of the album…only bringing this up because in the liner notes of Seal’s prior release, his self-titled second album, he wrote a very romantic and zen anecdote, featured in the thanks/credits section, about meeting a friend for the first time, that’s been hard to forget.
Story went like this: One day in 1992, in NYC, he’d spontaneously wandered into a fortune tellers storefront/parlor, and proceeded to get his palm read. The reader offered mostly outlandish rubbishy predictions but also said that he was about to embark on some of the most wonderful and traumatic times in his life. And that just as the traumatic stuff began he was going to meet a friend who would help “share the strain” and offer him unending inspiration to keep going …and that ended up happening. The guys name was Paul, and he refers to him as “my dear friend” and Seal said that that particular album was as much a reflection of Paul’s life experience as his. There’s something kind of moving about that little memory especially since he was speaking of a friend and not a romantic partner. See that’s the thing about Seal, and it’s all over this record, he’s a big picture guy. In his eyes the world is full of soulmates: friends, partners, humanity itself. It’s literally encapsulated in the title of the damn album, “Human Being”. It’s perfect not just musically but in that way too. It’s his Pet Sounds.
Hear it here: