Beck — Morning Phase
It’s no secret that Beck’s twelfth studio album sounds a lot like his eighth. The man himself recently referred to the new record, Morning Phase, as a “companion piece” to his bummer opus, Sea Change. Kind of a bold move considering Sea Change is a masterpiece, but it’s important to remember that Sea Change wasn’t Beck’s first moody acoustic record. Mutations mined much of the same territory back in ’98, as did One Foot in the Grave before it. So, sure, Morning Phase is a companion to Sea Change, but it’s also another take on a sound — one of many — that Beck has been working and reworking over the last twenty years.
Morning Phase isn’t the same sad sack of candy that its companion was, but musically they’re pretty close. How close? Well, the opening guitar chord on both albums is E major, so from the first strums of “Morning” you might suddenly feel as if your DeLorean has dropped you off in 2002. Assuming you’re a Sea Change fan, this is cause for celebration. If you prefer the funkier, junkyard-groove side of Beck, then, well, you’re just going to have to wait — there are rumors of another album being released later this year.
Morning Phase was recorded with the same band Beck used for the Sea Change sessions, and once again Beck’s father, David Richard Campbell, provides the string arrangements. All that being similar, Morning Phase is more of a country record, incorporating a fair amount banjo and slide into the mix. It’s also a warmer, more harmony-driven record. In a recent interview Beck said he was “hearing California” while working on the album, and there’s an unmistakable Laurel Canyon vibe that begins with “Heart Is A Drum” and carries through the rest of Morning Phase. In this regard it’s easy to imagine the first two tracks “Cycle” and “Morning” as Beck getting comfortable, remembering Sea Change, then tuning down to let the album develop its own identity.
Although Morning Phase flirts with different sounds — the spacey piano of “Unforgiven” and almost-funky guitar of “Blackbird Chain” — it never fully abandons its relaxed mood. It’s a singer-songwriter album of the old stripe, all be it with much more lush, orchestral production, which hangs a comfortable backdrop for Beck’s layered vocals. No doubt the strings and various bells and whistles will draw immediate comparisons to Sea Change, but there’s a shadow of familiarity lingering throughout Morning Phase, and not just in regards to Beck’s own catalogue. “Turn Away” somehow manages to pull off a combination Dylan’s “Percy’s Song” and The Byrds’ version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” without brushing too close to either one. The banjo flourishes on “Say Goodbye” will probably remind you — and definitely remind your dad — of James Taylor backing up Neil Young on “Old Man.” But this is still a Beck album, and for all its familiar influences Morning Phase showcases what Beck does best — reinvent. Maybe not the wheel, but the ride, or the trip if that’s your thing. Even standard heartbreak lyrics like “Don’t leave me on my own” come off more like Beck trying to understand a love he has rather than one he’s lost. There’s a sense of maturity, of something tenable and worth saving, of holding on and choosing a destination instead of the void. It’s as if Beck got all the paranoia out of his system with Modern Guilt. Now he’s six years older, signed to a new label, and while everybody else seems busy trying to get their MacBook to sound like an old Vocoder, Beck puts out a dusty-boots record. I love it. Every shimmering minute of it.
Stream the entire album here through NPR before its release date of Feb. 25th