Review Summary: We're fast asleep it's morning.
If there’s anything to be gleaned from the widening arc of Beck Hansen’s two decades-plus career, it’s that there’s a certain comfort, a trust in putting on a Beck record. To wit: Morning Phase
, his twelfth album and first since 2008’s strong Modern Guilt
, is Beck’s most gorgeous record. The production wafts in like a soft rain, damp but not soaked, warm and lush. “Morning” is so meticulously crafted as to have been assembled in a lab, but it never sounds remotely mechanical – its nuances and timbres are the sound of nature as melody, a soft give-and-go that’s like a double shot of major-key elephant tranquilizer. Morning Phase
is an exquisitely crafted release in a series of records that have increasingly perfected the art of a “Beck record,” whatever that means. His ability to maintain a sense of ostensible adventure while still assuring the listener that, wherever he goes, what will result will remain a quintessentially “Beck” record, is, at this point, totally refined. It’s never really mattered whether Beck was indulging in the atmospheric funk of Modern Guilt
, the reliably odd grab-bag of styles that was Guero
, or the bedroom sex jams of Midnite Vultures
; what you ended up with was Beck as musical cipher, putting his considerable songwriting talents to use in showing another side of his oeuvre, different but still agreeably familiar. It’s a cycle Beck himself encourages – he has called Morning Phase
a “companion piece” to 2002’s Sea Change
, borne out of a similarly trying life event (a debilitating spinal injury here, a devastating breakup in 2002) and featuring the same slow, sparkling folk tropes and a confessional singer-songwriter bent.
To simply call Morning Phase
a Sea Change
redux and be done with it does Beck and the album a disservice, of course. Sea Change
was a nakedly personal album that finally got to the heart of an artist who had been steadfastly opaque for nearly a decade. Where its detractors criticized Beck’s appropriation of traditional singer-songwriter clichés as just another instance of a performer trying on a new, different hat, its fans rightfully recognized an album that hit on a fundamentally emotional level the snickering Beck on Mellow Gold
and the prankster of Odelay
couldn’t touch. Morning Phase
is a similarly reflective record, one that expands a bit on Sea Change
’s sonic palette while staying true to that album’s introspective tone and lyrically blunt themes. “Wave” crawls forward through a shimmer of strings threatening to veer into dissonance while Beck intones “isolation” like a mantra, the weight of it inverting the wide-open spaces that the rest of Morning Phase
gently sketches out. It’s a claustrophobic listen and the nearest relative to Sea Change
’s unsettling dynamic, yet it’s also the only time Beck really approaches that latter record’s emotional desolation. Indeed, the melancholy that seems to emanate from Beck’s direction here is a mere patina coating stories of redemption (“Waking Light”) and romantic bliss (“Blackbird Chain”). It’s the comfortably warm blanket to Sea Change
’s dangerously smoldering fire.
Yet Morning Phase
lacks the one ingredient that made Sea Change
such an essential part of Beck the artist – the insight into a person usually as opaque and chameleonic as his own discography. Beck is overwhelmingly at ease throughout Morning Phase
– at his age and with his kind of success, it’s hard to see how he couldn’t be. Blips of uncertainty arise throughout: “Blue Moon” is a haunting contemplation of loneliness, its chords clanging against a backdrop of thudding drums and guitar wails that seem to stretch out forever, and “Turn Away”’s orchestral flourishes add to that song’s painfully serious warning. These moments elevate Morning Phase
from a decent approximation of a “sad Beck record” to tunes that genuinely plumb depths that he rarely trawls, but they shrink in contrast to the rest of the album, where Beck is content to relax in nostalgia and a generally sunny perspective. The twangy backwoods memory of “Country Down” and the dumb beauty of repetition in “Heart Is A Drum” are more representative of Beck’s current headspace, and while pretty to look at, they are pools that only go so deep.
In hindsight, this shallowness shouldn’t come as a surprise. Beck has always been superb at weaving his own tale however he sees fit – Morning Phase
is the perfect snapshot of an artist treading close to middle age and re-asserting himself with a sound that is as vibrant and generally indicative of its creator’s idiosyncratic songwriting abilities as could be hoped. That it fails to distinguish itself from his earlier, equally mild-mannered acoustic records, nor refuses to step out from the shadow of Sea Change
’s emotional wreck, is difficult to hold against it, or him. It’s Beck trying on a new hat, the same one his critics accused him of appropriating a little over a decade ago under false pretenses. That we know what Beck is capable of under this guise, however, makes Morning Phase
an increasingly inconsequential offering in his discography upon repeated listens. Here’s Beck doing happy folk that sounds sad, lyrics that entice but simply have no place interesting to take you but in another circle – having reached the pinnacle of your profession and basking in the satisfied glow of parenthood will occasionally have that effect. Perhaps it’s the appropriate album for Beck in 2014; frankly put, he sounds, at times, better than ever. For the listener, though, it’s a window shut, a portrait instead of a Beck who is much more interested in drawing a picture in two dimensions than enveloping you in it. At the end of things, Morning Phase
remains exceedingly lovely but disappointedly insubstantial; not a sea change at all, but just another passing phase in a career that’s made a specialty of them.