21 February 2014 (Capitol Records)
By: Josh Hughes
Twenty-one years ago, give or take a month, Beck Hansen forever changed the world with “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey”, and the consecutive sitar rap lines of “Loser”. In those twenty-one years, Beck has done nothing but grow as a musical chameleon. Whether it’s the lo-fi party hip-hop of “Odelay”, the psych-country roots of “Mutations”, the gray rhythms of “Modern Guilt”, or the heartbreak folk of “Sea Change”, he made a name for himself as nearly everything. I mean this guy can literally do anything he wants without consequences, and probably be pretty damn good at it. However, “Morning Phase”, his first proper LP in six years, channels a previous incarnation of Beck, the “Sea Change” Beck, and marks his first true return to the same style.
“Morning Phase” somewhat meticulously takes a step backward to take two steps forward. The parallels between the album and “Sea Change” are everywhere, particularly noting the nearly identical structure of the opening songs off both albums. “Morning” and “The Golden Age” root themselves as compliments to each other, but “Morning” is more intuitive pondering than melancholic. There’s a different quality to the downturned folk this time; Beck Hansen is now happily married with kids, and no longer has the emotional backdrop of a dead end 9-year relationship to fuel his musical genius. It’s a lazy day album to listen to on Sunday mornings or late late hours of Friday nights.
The struggle of artists past the spotlight of their careers is to maintain an element of freshness that defies age. Before this album, Beck’s response to that dilemma always focused on the element of surprise, but here there’s a burst of timeless songwriting that proves even more universal than modern production. “Blue Moon”, “Don’t Let It Go” and “Turn Away” are some of the strongest songs in popular music of the year, all based off of being brilliantly written songs, with the first of that batch in contention for my favorite individual song of the year thus far.
Beck’s father handles orchestral arrangements, and the same studio musicians that worked on “Sea Change” play behind Beck throughout the course of the album. The strings are beautifully rendered on “Wave”, the most badass, jaw dropping moment on the album, all without the any help of rhythm. It reaches the only kind of climax it deserves after 3 minutes and kick starts the best run of the album. In other sections, “Unforgiven” shows off Beck’s vocal talents, and “Waking Light” closes the album grandly without overstepping itself or bordering on cliché.
While there’s not a bad song in the batch, its 11 songs (excluding the intro and interlude) verge on excess at some points. Like a good to great Iron & Wine album, a third of the songs drift in and out without much regard to form, instead existing as hypnotic grooves. This works nine out of ten times, but the paint by numbers folk of “Say Goodbye” isn’t as effective when placed in between two better songs of the same style. It’s still a beautiful piece of music, but its placement feels awkward, just as the deep cut “Country Down” does.
Beck is allegedly already back at work on a Pharrell featuring funk album, just in time to put him back in his place as the guy who sang both “Lost Cause” and “Timebomb”. But until then, “Morning Phase” is a reminder of the singer/songwriter incarnation of Beck that shows off his chops as a writer. Like a “Kid A”/”Amnesiac” coupling, “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase” are appropriately sequels, though these are a decade apart, and show the growth of an artist under the same circumstances as ten years before. Beck is a conundrum in the music world, he’s a happily living middle-aged man still making music as complex and compelling as the younger, heartbroken version of him, and “Morning Phase” is his concrete reminder of that.
Fav Tracks: “Blue Moon”, “Wave”, “Don’t Let It Go”