I’ve never been so sad over a “hidden” or “bonus” track in my life. “Sea” is the best song that BTS gifted us this comeback, and furthermore it’s one of their best songs of all time. Yes, I loved “Love Yourself: HER.” Yes, I loved “DNA.” But “Sea” is, by far, the most compositionally and lyrically stunning track on this album. The decision to tack it on as a hidden track has fractioned the audience that it will reach, and I’m appalled that BigHit has seen fit to commit “Sea” to such a fate.
Even I, admittedly a massive BTS fan, didn’t even listen to “Sea” until the day after “HER” dropped. I think many of us made the same mistake because we were so caught up in the excitement of the comeback, the “DNA” MV, and the album itself. But once 24 hours passed and I started to see “OMG Sea I cried it’s so beautiful” all over Twitter, I figured it was time to give it a listen. Nothing could have prepared me for what was about to hit me. I still remember sitting on my bed, looking out the window at the green sky just after the sun had set, my mouth hanging open as “Sea” played on SoundCloud. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The descending guitar riff that kicks off the song, stretched over a frame of watercolor chords, provides a backdrop where the rap and vocal sections paint a landscape. The melody of the guitar riff repeats over and over with slight variations throughout the song—here in piano; there in acoustic guitar; in the final refrain quickening like candle wax turning to liquid under flame. The repetition of this structure anchors “Sea” through the distinct verses of the rappers: RM’s measured pensiveness, J-Hope’s doubt and optimisim, and Suga’s lambent, self-reflexive intensity that recalls his mixtape but cannot be found anywhere else on “HER.” The vocalists pour delicate ardor into the chorus, which builds through a clipping beat that never gives the satisfaction of breaking but instead is cut off by the returning quiet of the verses. In this way the dynamic mimics not rolling hills or valleys and mountains, as other songs do, but the way small waves on the shore advance and are interrupted to be pulled back, all too appropriate for a track that explores the extended metaphor of desert versus sea to compare the barrenness of adversity with the fullness of happiness. All this leads up to the last chorus, where the song finally draws out to low tide as layered vocal harmonies trail off and member V’s dusky voice delivers slightly altered lyrics in the same melody, but an octave lower. This is my favorite part of “Sea” and one of the most compelling song endings BTS has ever created.
Superb composition aside, “Sea” also makes references to past tracks, echoing the lyrics’ theme of the group’s past hardships. “Sea” starts off with the gentle noises of wind and waves crashing, reminiscent of the introduction to RM’s WINGS solo, “Reflection,” which began with sounds RM had recorded at Tteuksom Park. “Reflection” was profoundly meditative and poignant, and the introduction of “Sea” indicates that it will go in a similar direction. Heralding the slight rhythm change in the middle of each chorus is a faintly blinking electronic noise that to me sounds exactly like the iconic opening of Jungkook’s WINGS solo “Begin,” where the youngest member describes how his groupmates raised and protected him through the uncertainty of their yet-unproductive career, a time that for Jungkook was comprised of his most vulnerable teenage years. Suga even blatantly references WINGS’ title track “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” in the line “The desert I was once afraid of became a sea filled by our blood, sweat, and tears.” The WINGS references are a nod to a particularly significant moment in BTS’s career, when their influence exploded in South Korea and their status as one of the top two or three groups became undeniable. It’s a way of acknowledging the success they’ve had in the midst of the sadness communicated by the lyrics and composition. So much thought was obviously put into this track, so much time and hard work, it shocks me that the brilliant result was hung out to dry.
Okay, there are various possible motives for the decision to relegate “Sea” to a hidden track status, because nothing BigHit does is uncalculated. The most obvious reason I can think of is that “Sea” doesn’t fit with the overarching theme of the album. “HER” is all about love, mostly BTS’s love for their fans, and “Sea” with its desolate existential contemplations is an outlier in this respect. “Sea” also stands out in terms of genre and sound, falling definitively into the acoustic/rock category while the rest of “HER” is almost exclusively pop.
I also read somewhere when the album came out that “Sea” was not included on the official album because it was initially never meant to be a BTS song. Now I can’t seem to find the source again, and I have no idea how factual it is. But I remember seeing that leader RM had originally written it for his next mixtape, and that when BigHit CEO Hitman Bang (Bang Shihyuk) got ahold of it, he told RM that it was too good not to be included on a commercial record. Which is damn right, so why didn’t they go ahead and include it on a commercial record? If the source I saw has got it right, BigHit and RM wanted to reserve the song specifically for ARMY, BTS’ fanbase, because of its deeply personal lyrics in which RM and other members open up to their fans about how the pain of past struggles still affects their lives today.
Even if what I read is 100% true, I just can’t get on board with it. Sure, it would make complete sense to save a vulnerable song for trusted fans IF the track weren’t this good, but the bottom line is that “Sea” is a masterpiece and it’s a crime to squirrel it away where only loyal fans will be able to find it. Casual listeners, general K-pop fans, and those new to BTS may never hear “Sea” because of its status as a hidden track. A friend of mine who isn’t a part of the ARMY fandom gave “HER” a listen but did not hear “Sea” until I told her that she had skipped a work of genius, after which she came back and told me, “I’m so mad. That’s the best song on the album.” If we had never talked, it’s likely that she would never have known the song existed. I’m sure that is the case with thousands and thousands of people, and just the thought is a tragedy to me.
As shocked as I am that BigHit did not give “Sea” the respect it deserves, I do realize how lucky we are that it exists as an OT7 BTS track. I’m thankful to RM as always for penning yet another masterwork, and proud of BTS for performing it with such pathos, such delicate intensity. But I’ll always be just a little disappointed that BigHit let this star of a track slip through their fingers.
Take a look at the lyrics to BTS’s “Sea” below: