Album Review: Beck – Morning Phase Featured
Known for genre hopping, flipping and mashing at every chance he gets, Beck is a renowned and much revered producer – the musicians’ musician. Yet, his twelfth studio album, Morning Phase is by no means his best. This period in Beck’s life is one dripping in saccharine tones and hues and it’s clear that he’s a happy (and perhaps complacent) man at this moment in time. This new found freedom has himself examining solemn emotion from a different vantage point, allowing space to bliss the hell out, put on some shades, sip a cocktail and embody that So-Cal vibe. This translates into a sturdy album that’s been patiently and meticulously crafted but has not progressed much further from where he left off.
Billed as a continuation of his second album, Sea Change (produced by Nigel Godrich and released 12 years ago), it doesn't seem quite able to pip its predecessor. Admittedly though, that’s not saying much – when talking about album comparisons with Mr Hansen we’re, more often than not, talking champagne problems. Over his 20 year career almost every one of his albums has garnered superlative critical acclaim, cultivating his own place in the world and remaining one of the few 90s artists left over from whom people actually anticipate releases.
The album on a whole has the feel of a musical meditation, with Beck interrogating the entire process. Every vignette, every tone, every string on his acoustic guitar is distinct and considered. Reminiscent of Brian Eno’s work with Paul Simon back in 2006, Beck – as producer of the album – places himself within a dense cacophony of orchestral swirls (a contribution from Beck’s father), vocal effects and rewinds. These almost philosophical enquiries might lead to an alienation or ambiguity, but the tracks are better for it. In the stunning 'Blue Moon', for instance, the lyrical content resembles Beck at his most earnest, beginning with the cry of "I’m so tired of being alone" and continuing to talk of a young vagabond with a turncoat on his knees. Those unfamiliar with Beck’s origins may deem this as an attempt at folky posturing. But Hansen was, at a very young age, that exact character: having dropped out of school by grade 9 and begun touring the states by age 19, he is the quintessential vagabond success story.
On first listen the almost glacial pace of much of the album appears to work against it. However, after more listens one learns that the songs age well. Tracks like ‘Don’t Let It Go’ were at first dipping into slow and self-indulgent acoustic rock balladry – the uncool dad adult contemporary kind. While ‘Don’t Let It Go’ is still one of the weaker songs off the album, masterworks like ‘Unforgiven’ need the space to breathe and expand. Added to that, the achingly beautiful vocal work that sees Beck embracing this ability more so than we’ve ever heard makes it a certified stunner.
In conversation with the Guardian, Hansen touches on the pace of many of the tracks and the intention behind them:
Everything is exceedingly slow," says Beck. "Almost impossible-to-play slow, you know? When a lot of the songs were being tracked we were always 'Slower, let's get slower'. Because the slower it gets, the harder it is to play. They get harder to sing. But suddenly these songs that could be just simple singer-songwriter songs, everything elongates and they become something else. It just has a spell to it, this suspended feeling, and I wanted a lot of the sounds to feel familiar, but also to have something a little bit haunting and strange about them. I don't know why I just thought it might make it a little more interesting."
One track that has seen Beck garner a touch of flack is ‘Wave’. With an epically solemn orchestral accompaniment, Beck’s voice is at the forefront, echoing and reverberating over a sparse sonic landscape: a truly beautiful place that packs a bona fide emotional punch. The problem, however, is its apparent similarity to Björk’s ‘Hunter’. Along with that comes an alleged closeness of Nick Drake’s classic ‘Day is Done' to much of the album. Indeed, there is a similarity to the strings driving ‘Wave’ and ‘Hunter' – their chord progressions are somewhat similar, but for the most part they are unwarranted. As far as Nick Drake is concerned, the comparison does leave one stranded in slightly murky territory. But with Beck being the kind of musician he is one would charitably assume it’s more of a tribute than anything else.
Morning Phase is an album which is a prime example of aural complexity that illustrates how capable today’s Beck really is. At times tipping nods to Harvest-era Neil Young and even a bit of CSNY, Morning Phase is a warm, syrup soaked piece of Americana that is a joy to listen to. With a follow up album due later on this year – on which he’s rumoured to be working with Pharrell Williams – this year may well be his most definitive.