Listen to this song by cut-and-paste irony merchant and heartfelt singer-songwriter all in one, Beck. It’s “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, a single as taken from his 2002 album Sea Change, his seventh. The album’s title can be taken in a few ways, with one being the impression that Beck had embraced a new level of candour in terms of subject matter and perspective. This may be due to the fact that the album was released during a period of upheaval for its creator.
This song is one of many that documents the break-up of a relationship, with a requirement for the narrator in each song to confront the associated emotional turbulence before moving beyond it and starting a new chapter for himself. Sea change indeed, then. Evidently, Beck was apprehensive about revealing the depths of his feelings around these kinds of themes, given that he’d personally broken up with his partner of nine years around the time this album was released. He wanted to avoid self-indulgence, and capturing his own misery in amber. Eventually though, it occurred to him that songs about break-ups are legion because the pain associated with the end of a relationship is universal to the human experience. Why not write about it?
As a result, this song goes beyond any one personal story and opens things up in the material for an audience. This resulted in some pretty solid reviews. And there are still some eyebrow-arching lines in there that are true to their writer’s M.O to boot.
To add dimension to things where the themes of this song is concerned, Beck worked with director Spike Jonze to create a home movie-like meta-narrative video depicting a lonesome Beck wandering in a park, dogged by his guitar following close behind as if it’s being dragged on an invisible string. It’s as if the guitar is the song itself, demanding that it be written despite the artist’s resistance to doing so. In what seems to be an impromptu query by a soccer-playing youth in the park about what he’s doing, Beck tells him that he’s shooting a video for a song he wrote. “What’s the song about?” asks the youth. “Man, that’s a long story,” answers the artist. And that’s the thing. It really is a long story a good deal of the time, and it gets exhausting to try to tell it to everyone who asks “how are you doing”? This is especially when those asking already have a pretty good idea of the answer.
I think what this song is really about is the struggle to gain perspective on one’s own identity as a life-defining relationship comes to an end. Beyond the rawness of missing a person you’ve loved, this is one of the hardest parts of getting over a break-up; figuring out who you want to be apart from that other person with whom you’ve formerly entwined your life. It’s about choosing the next road, and not fully knowing the destination. It’s hard to put what that means that into an easy narrative for oneself, let alone one to explain to others. It’s no wonder that Beck initially hesitated before making an album out of it, and no wonder that it seemed like such a long story to tell when doing so.
All the while, the impression that he’s being earnest and is kicking irony to the curb on this song is too simple to be true. “I Guess I’m Doing Fine” proves that you can be one while employing the other pretty naturally if you’re so inclined. Where the lyrics here are perhaps more personally revealing than on “Sexx Laws”, “Where It’s At”, or “Loser”, Beck still deals in levels of meaning here as well as he’d ever done. “It’s only lies that I’m living/It’s only tears that I’m crying/It’s only you that I’m losing/I guess I’m doing fine”. If you don’t detect irony in those lines, I think your irony detector may need a visit to the irony shop. (Whisper it: he’s not doing fine at all.)
By writing and singing this song, though, it sounds like he’s trying to be fine. This makes it a pretty clear statement of where he’s coming from despite any use of inverted language. Many of us say we’re fine when we’re not. Many of us don’t want to talk about how vulnerable we feel. Sometimes it’s too complicated to explain in a way that does justice to those sets of feelings. It’s too long a story to tell. Sometimes, it’s just easier to say “I guess I’m doing fine” than it is to tell that whole story. This song cuts right to the heart of that state of mind.
Maybe that’s another reason this song and Sea Change as a whole seemed to make such a positive impact on listeners. The song helps to tell many stories about loss and the process people go through to manage it. It does this so that we as listeners don’t have to. And isn’t that why we gravitate towards art in the first place?
Beck is an active artist today, with a new compilation record out that includes a new single “Wow”. Investigate it, and other Beck-related info at beck.com.