“I think he was a bit tortured, and he had somewhat of a difficult life, and all of his experience, and his longing and his own heartbreak is really apparent in his vocals.” –Rosanne Cash
Most who consider this song a classic are either steeped in country roots tradition or have been around long enough to hear it recorded by some of the greats. When Rosanne Cash remade the song for her album The List in 2010, she got no hesitation from Bruce Springsteen when she asked him to record it with her. That album came from a list that her father Johnny gave her of songs she didn’t know but should. The elder Cash recorded it himself in 1996 for his album Unchained.
While Sea of Heartbreak is known as a song recorded by mostly country artists, its written roots lie firmly in the pop tradition. The music is penned by Paul Hampton with lyrics by Hal David. These two would go on separately to storied careers in pop composition, David most famously teaming with the iconic Burt Bacharach.
After some solo strumming on a tinkly guitar, the production takes a rollicking tone with a honky-tonk piano and even a vocalized portion of the intro. We’ll hear this technique used again throughout the song with the “bom bom bom” bassline singers. When Gibson’s voice slides into that first famous phrase of verse one, it’s a breath of fresh air to anyone who’s used to hearing the trying-too-hard-to-twang from many of today’s country crooners. His rich baritone is built for nuanced note reading, and he hasn’t a hint of the stereotypical down-in-the-holler drawl. Listen to the inflection on “I’m like a lost ship”. It’s velvety smooth, transitioning each note on top of the other like layers of buttercream frosting.
As Rosanne Cash says about Gibson’s performance in our opening quote, there’s real feeling behind this metaphor. Gibson was a songwriter as well, and though he didn’t write this one, he projects the lyrics like they were his own. It’s easy to take a song like this (“Heartbreak Hotel” comes to mind), and make it more about the metaphor than the sentiment it is supposed to represent. It’s interesting that there are “lights in the harbor” but they “don’t shine” for our protagonist. His exile at sea seems to be self-imposed. He wants to sail to back to her arms, but implies he can’t. In the final verse though, he asks her to “come to my rescue”, somewhat of a reversed role to the “damsel in distress”.
There are plenty of good interpretations of this song out there to chew on, from elder Cashto Cash the Younger, to George Strait and Jimmy Buffett’s duet, both studioand liveversions. I’m still partial to the original 1961 recording though, for sole reason of Don Gibson’s “heartbreaking” vocal performance.