Beck – Morning Phase
by Mike Doub (Psychology/Journalism), published February 26th 2014
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
In 2002, following an intense break-up (aren’t they all), indie-rock oddball Beck released Sea Change, a folk-tinged collection of heartbreak songs. It was a striking release, particularly following an album-long Prince tribute, but also because Beck’s charm usually came from his quirks. His best work at that point, albums like Odelay and Mellow Gold, thrived on odd sample choices and lo-fi production, matching Beastie Boys-like aggression with downtempo country. As it turned out the new look suited Beck; Sea Change is one of his finest records to date and (hyperbole warning) the Blood on the Tracks of a generation. Enter Morning Phase, Beck’s first album in six years that happens to feature all of the musicians that played with him on Sea Change.
It’s tempting to call Morning Phase a sequel to Sea Change then, and it more or less is. At the very least it’s a spiritual successor; first song, “Morning,” even begins with the same strummed open chord that kicked off that album. Morning Phase is different in its tone though—less Nick Drake, more guy basking in the California sun. Beck sings about saying goodbye and being lonely, but outside of the haunting “Wave” his inflection is almost uplifting. Moreover, Beck has never sounded better as a singer than he does here. On his ‘90s releases Beck sang in either a lazy drawl or half-assed rap—charming but monotone. On Morning Phase, he instead channels the influence of classic American singer-songwriters and most of the time is worthy of them. The vocal layers he piles on “Morning” and his hushed humming on “Turn Away” for example are heavenly, as pretty as anything the Byrds ever committed to tape. Lyrically he’s a bit on the balmy side (“I’m so tired of being alone” is one of a few painfully direct choruses), but sonically? Beck’s voice here is like honey to the ears.
The improved vocals are part of the draw of Morning Phase, the rest is its wealth of pretty sounds. A friend—a non-Beck fan, mind you—told me that he only listens to Sea Change when he wants nice background music, and that backhanded compliment goes double for Morning Phase. It’s stuffed with gorgeous details easy to get lost in, like the George Harrison guitar at the end of “Waking Light” or the subtle drumming from Joey Waronker on “Say Goodbye.” Beck’s dad, David Campbell, contributes a couple of string interludes too, (“Cycle” and “Phase”) which recall the sun-drenched symphonies of the Beach Boys. The songs on Morning Phase are looser and more relaxed than their Sea Change counterparts, which is mainly how the new record sets itself apart. If Sea Change was the sound of 1 a.m. despondence, Morning Phase is a pleasant Sunday morning with the family: warmer, friendlier, less committed to awing listeners and more to making them smile.
That first record was such a smash partly because it was also such a surprise; I doubt if anyone expected the guy behind the slacker anthem “Loser” to write songs without his trademark whimsy, let alone songs that good. If we’re being honest, Beck hasn’t surprised listeners since, but Morning Phase isn’t aiming for that. It’s a reaffirmation that he’s just as good at being conventional as being odd, and after a six-year break from making music, I can’t think of a better message to ride coming back. Maybe conventional Beck is even better.
Recommended Tracks: “Morning,” “Wave,” “Waking Light”