[24 February 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“When I started out playing small clubs, you could feel the room recoil from certain kinds of songs. Anything that was too personal, that had a sentiment to it, or was laying out your feelings, was immediately booed. People would start throwing things. And anything that was really provocative or humorous or radical was embraced or cheered. So that fostered in me a sort of mode of survival.”
—Beck, Billboard Cover Story (2014.4.14)
Beck may be one of the most prolific musicians of the past decade, which is actually a pretty funny statement when you realize he hasn’t released an album proper since 2008.
After finishing up his Interscope contract with the dry Danger Mouse-produced disc Modern Guilt, Beck then proceeded to create the Record Club, wherein he and his fellow musician friends tore through famous cult classics almost entirely from memory, after which he helped produce some songs to Jamie Lidell‘s album, dropped off a classical piece for a Philip Glass tribute, unleashed a songbook of brand-new compositions simply called Song Reader, donated an excellent song to the Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack, wrote a bunch of original tunes for Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, produced Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s excellent 2009 disc IRM, and even wound up releasing three standalone singles himself in 2013 (the best of which, “I Won’t Be Long”, could’ve easily fit on Modern Guilt without a soul complaining). There was no promise or hint at of any new album: just the sound of Beck having some damn fun without any sense of obligation to put something out—he was going at his own pace.
So while some interviews with Beck’s friends and collaborators revealed that the notorious musical mastermind had no less than four full-length albums worth of material ready to go at a moment’s notice, Beck wasn’t really feeling things until he called up virtually all of his collaborators from his 2002 breakup classic Sea Change for an album of songs that were somewhat in the same vein. Now, after years of waiting, Morning Phase is here… and it sounds a lot like Sea Change. In fact, opening song “Morning” keeps Sea‘s same drum stylings, the same simplistic guitar strums, and even those exact same Godrich-y keyboard plinks that so defined Sea Change‘s sonic palette. While Beck has repeatedly said that Morning Phase isn’t a direct sequel to Sea Change, there are numerous times on this disc where he weakens his own argument.
That being said, although both albums bear intense textural similarities, what ultimately separates them is the tone and intention. Sea Change was Beck at his most Pagliacci, pop music’s prankster clown showing how he really has the feels underneath it all, but what was most stunning was how he pared down his songcraft to its most bare, the lyrics clean and direct where previously they were lost in absurdism and simile. He certainly dropped hints prior about how well he was able to articulate melancholy, but Sea Change was a classic breakup album, so many of the songs being covered within months of their being released, that disc connecting with a near universal mindset of longing and self-pity.
What Morning Phase does differently is that there is a bit of hope tacked on to the intention of each song, a bit of sunshine baked deep inside Beck’s echoing voice. The quietly propulsive “Heart Is a Drum” sounds closer to a Beth Orton number than it does a Beck tune, but it plays well with its sense of uplift. “Say Goodbye” is a prime example of how the albums differ, as lyrically it comes off as more hopelessly romantic than romantically hopeless, the narrator going after the girl who leaves him even as he envisions the exact words she’ll say to him before she leaves. His voice is stretched out into a mournful echo time and time again, and although a bit repetitious, it does show that Mr. Hansen has this whole aural catharsis thing down to formula.
Yet an effective formula dulls without a modicum of diversity infused into it, and so while the phaser-fed pianos of “Unforgiven” provide a nice tonal variation, songs like “Turn Away” and “Blackbird Chain” begin to feel a bit like Morning Phase is lapping itself. The tracklist is made in such a way that there isn’t anything too similar-sounding rubbing up against each other, but if you’re listening to the album out of order, there are more than a few cases where tracks may very well bleed together.
None of this should detract from the fact that these are some solid songs all around, but a lush, gorgeous album such as this unfortunately does not have the same dramatic pull as Sea Change or Blood on the Tracks or any number of good breakup albums do. With discs such as those, there is an obvious goal of catharsis, achieved through humor or lyrical self-flagellation or any number of means. An album of generally hopeful promises, while still good, does not carry with it the same level of direct impact. This is not the fault of Beck at all—all of his albums have different endgames—but when evoking the sonic landscape of a previously album so deliberately without achieving the same level of impact, it’s hard to not feel that something is missing from the equation.
However, those seeking Sea Change‘s hit-you-in-the-gut level of mourning can still find it: the lavish strings on “Wave” threaten to break out into “Pyramid Song” at any given moment, but their cinematic scope help bevy the minor-key melody into something that can only be called “elegant dread”, Beck letting an outside force overtake him completely: “If I surrender / and I don’t fight this wave / No I won’t go under / I’ll only get carried away.” He finishes the song by simply singing the word “isolation” over and over again, which would actually be a self-pitying parody of Beck’s own dramatic poses were it not so darn effective.
The closing track “Waking Light” starts out as a Carole King-styled piano ballad, but before long it dives fully into Beck’s lush, all-encompassing production, several distorted ooh’s at the end achieving some real appoggiatura, Beck singing that “Day is gone on a landslide of rhythm / It’s in your lamplight burning low.” Morning Phase very much burns low, differing from Sea Change in notable ways while at the exact same time robbing that album of so many textures, ideas, and poses that Beck’s own claims of this disc not being a sequel to Sea Change prove to be downright laughable. Morning Phase may not be the out-and-out masterpiece that everyone says it is, but anytime we are blessed with a very-good Beck album, the world is all the richer because of it.