Beck - Morning Phase
Beck revisits his acoustic and orchestral sensibilities with some indifference
Describing Beck’s music is no easy task. He got his start making “anti-folk” music in the early 1990s, culminating in the hit single “Loser” from 1994’s Mellow Gold. He then went on to record the breakthrough Odelay in 1996, which combined rock, hip-hop, and country, and followed it with a straightforward folk album Mutations in 1998. Continuing to explore new terrain, he released the funk and R&B influenced Midnite Vultures in 1999, only to follow it up with a very somber, acoustic album Sea Change in 2002. He then returned to Odelay’s style with Guero in 2005 and with The Information in 2006. Trying something new again, he made the somewhat psychedelic and more straightforward rock Modern Guilt in 2008.

From this brief Beckology, you may notice two things: first, he’s gone all over the place in his musical stylings, which is probably why he’s labeled “alternative” as a catch-all. Second, he hasn’t released an album in roughly six years. Sure he released a book of sheet music called Song Reader in 2012, but come on now. With this unusually long gap in his discography and a tendency to be a musical wildcard, Beck could have come out with anything from a death metal album to a 50 track electronic concept album and no one would have been too surprised.

Potentially, Beck pulled the most surprising move of all when he returned to the orchestral and acoustic sound of Sea Change for his new album Morning Phase. As background, Sea Change was a beautiful record inspired by a breakup, its tracks combining graceful melodies with heartbreaking lyrics that laid bare some pretty raw emotions. You may be wondering if something bad happened in Beck’s personal life to inspire a return to this sound, but no, Beck is still married and fortunately hasn’t had any devastating turns of luck. Still, the resemblances between the two are uncanny, at least at first listen.

For starters, Morning Phase opens with a brief orchestral piece “Cycle” that is comes back as “Phase” later in the album. Morning Phase features string arrangements done by Beck’s father, David Campbell, who also did the arrangements you hear on Sea Change’s tracks like “Paper Tiger” and “Lonesome Tears.” His string arrangements seem to have their own distinct tones, since the instrumentation on “Wave” resembles the adagio of “Round the Bend” from Sea Change. Second track “Morning” opens with more or less the same acoustic chords as “The Golden Age” from Sea Change and likewise amps up the emotional intensity for its chorus of “this morning/I lost all my defenses.” Even the noises on the outro of third track “Heart is a Drum” resemble those on the outro of Sea Change’s “Lost Cause.” This may seem nitty-gritty, but even a casual Beck Fan that heard both albums once would notice the broad parallels between the two. Beck must have known what he was doing with this stylistic resurrection, and maybe after releasing two playful albums and a relatively straightforward one, he wanted to make something more earnest and expressive.

While the general sound is almost identical and there are some scattered close similarities between the two albums, Sea Change and Morning Phase nevertheless have their fair share of differences that give the latter its own distinct place in the Beckology. “Unforgiven” uses a fader effect on its piano part to really give it a kind of “soaring” feel. “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down” have a hint of contemporary country on them. “Blue Moon” is perhaps the most pop-tinged and radio friendly acoustic song Beck has done as serious Beck. But perhaps most noticeably of all, the tracks sound more hopeful and triumphant than anything on Sea Change, which can be summed up as “a real downer.” Tracks had names like “Lonesome Tears,” “Lost Cause,” and “Already Dead,” and only the song “Sunday Sun” could be considered remotely uplifting. Yet this is what made Sea Change incredible. As stated previously, it laid bare some raw emotions, and Beck sung with unprecedented sincerity over its varying simple chords and lush strings. Morning Phase in contrast feels somewhat detached, and none of its lyrics stick with you long after listening. Even with lyrics like “these are the words we use to say goodbye,” he sounds as if he’s singing them stone-faced, and some choruses are just him repeating the song title. He may have wanted to revisit Sea Change’s overall style, but while the instruments are there and the voice is there, the feeling isn’t.

I may be unfairly judging here, and you may never want to hear me say Sea Change again. If I had only listened to Beck starting with Guero I’d be blown away and even if this was my first Beck exposure I’d be damn impressed. After all, Morning Phase is beautifully done, and Beck still shows an incredible amount of talent. There are no distinctly bad tracks, the guitar and orchestra interplay is fantastic, and there are some amazing “dreamy” sounding moments. Yet in context, this is not only something Beck has done before, but something he has done better before. After six years of only piecemeal material being released Morning Phase is certainly a welcome endeavor and will not disappoint, but it will also not take you very far.

Grade: B+
Tags: beck, morning phase
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