Beck returns to a distant sound on 'Morning Phase'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It’s the sound of an old friend coming home.
From the first notes of Beck’s latest album, Morning Phase, memories of solitary nights came flooding back. Those nights where morning never seems possible and the weight of the inexpressible feels its heaviest, there would be comfort in reaching for an album and a voice encoded in plastic in an attempt to put the world back in order.On many of those nights, the record to reach for was Sea Change, Beck’s 2002 opus that detailed the ruin of his long-term relationship and resulted in an album that should have been marked by warning signs for anyone feeling even a hint of anguish. To play that album was to relive every devastating emotion ever experienced over the course of 53 minutes. There are other records like that, of course, but the fact that Beck, ever the Generation X chameleon, was able to conjure the ghosts and spirits required to record it was stunning.
And it’s just as interesting that, apart from momentary diversions, Beck never before and never again followed the sound he developed on Sea Change, which was a heavy, lush reading on his previous introspective work. Perhaps the decision to not chase that sound was simply a matter of honoring the subject of the songs; with heartbreak in the rearview mirror, he could return to making the music from his happiest days, playing with beats and singing delightful nonsense.
As such, Sea Change has stood as an outlier in an impressive career or music mashing and genre crashing, the moment where Beck took all of the tools at his disposal and crafted the most gut-wrenching album of his time, a record that needs to be kept at a safe distance whenever a true emotional collapse is near.
But here on Morning Phase, if not completely sharing the same sentiment, Beck has returned to the aesthetic of Sea Change. While it’s not as if he’s been absent since 2008’s Morning Guilt, working on a collection of songs distributed as sheet music, touring and working as a producer, and releasing songs in dribbles throughout that time, this is the first chance listeners at large have had a chance to hear Beck in a proper setting in six years.
And that sound, right from the opening “Cycle,” is incredible. After the fanfare, a single acoustic guitar leads into shimmering guitars and keys to create the ethereal, downbeat world that can wordlessly express the depths of the soul. It begins with the narrator waking up ready to face the challenges of the day, both stated and implied.
But beyond that sound that can trigger so many impulsive feelings of beautiful dread, there are lighter moments on this album that give it a balance not always heard from Beck. Typically, he’s either feast or famine, glitter or doom. But he’s almost lighthearted on “Heart is a Drum” even when he’s serious, and he never lets the weight of the material crowd out a clever couplet or musical trick. In the space of the music, he found a way to be almost playful without sounding ridiculous.
There are a number of roads he takes to accomplish this. “Say Goodbye” hits a beat that’s somewhere between country and blues without sounding like a genre exercise, and “Blue Moon” sounds like it could’ve been written under a Hawaiian moon. Meanwhile, “Wave” employs lush strings that bury the singer in a grave of his own making, and “Phase” transitions into the acoustic warnings of “Turn Away.”
By the time we reach “Waking Light,” a call for renewed energy and effort in the face of struggle, reaching to restart the program occurs by reflex. It glides and sweeps, building and building until there’s a crash and it’s over. The day that began on “Cycle” comes to a close, prepared for what’s next but leaving the listener hanging on for more.
It’s all feels massive, even though the results fall short of the emotional wallop of Sea Change. But that could actually work in the record’s favor; in place of unrelenting sadness is, instead, an acknowledgement of the subtle weariness of life. The album is a result of Beck following that beautiful hum and creating a record that won’t lead listeners hurtling down the pit of despair. That pit is useful and cathartic sometimes, but for when it’s not needed, it’s nice to finally have the alternative. And ultimately, it’s nice to finally have this version of Beck back home.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org