Beck hasn’t made an album under his own name in six years, but he’s done plenty of thinking about albums — about how they work, about what they can do. He’s taken to producing albums for other people, and one of those, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM, is the strongest Beck-associated LP since Sea Change (or, at least, it was until now). A couple of years ago, he also started up the Record Club project, in which he rounded up people like Thurston Moore and St. Vincent and Wilco, recruiting them to help him cover full albums from artists as disparate as the Velvet Underground and INXS and Yanni — figuring out their own versions of those songs, but intimately acquainting themselves with the original LPs in the process. Beck’s 2012 sheet-music-only album Song Reader was, among other things, an art-project inquiry into the nature of the album itself: If nobody can hear you sing these songs, do the songs even exist? And if Beck has been taking his own self-designed master-class in album creation, it was a good use of his time and energy. His last three studio albums all had moments, but compared to what he’d been doing before, they felt like increasingly empty slogs, all caught somewhere between his sensitive and dork-funk sides. And so with Morning Phase, his new one, he’s gone back to his last great album, 2002′s Sea Change. Morning Phase isn’t Sea Change; it’s its own thing. But it’s also a great example of an artist digging into his past to figure out the sorts of things that he can do when he focuses his energy.
Beck made Sea Change while in the throes of a soul-shattering breakup, and though Morning Phase is, in many ways, a companion piece, it’s coming from a very different emotional place. The aesthetic here is the same: Deep-melancholy string-streaked studio singer-songwriter blues. And to make it, he used the same musicians, same instruments, same studio. His father contributed string arrangements, just as he did on Sea Change. But these days, Beck is happily married, with two kids, and deep into a Southern California cool-rich-guy existence that is, by all accounts, very pleasant. He’s singing about isolation and saying goodbye here, but there’s a certain distance to it. And both musically and lyrically, he sounds settled in a way he never has before. It’s like he set out to make the richest, most sweeping quiet-brunch soundtrack that he could ever make, and he’s done it. Morning Phase is an liltingly lovely, glowingly easy-on-the-ears piece of work, and that’s no slight. It’s comforting and welcoming in the a that few albums are, and a musical communication of a contented sigh is just as valid and real as one of an anguished sob.
Words aren’t the point on Morning Phase. There’s no lyrical catharsis or grand sense of expression. Stray lyrics, if you think about them hard enough, can be awkward enough to vex (“the hills roll by like centuries”?). Mostly, though, they just float by. With Sea Change, Beck gave the impression that he had to make the album, and that’s not the case here. Instead, Morning Phase works more like a thought experiment: How pretty can he make this thing? It’s an album about sound-design and arrangement, about sparing no expense to musically evoke a certain happily-bored zone-out state of mind. In terms of pure sonic sweep, the album has a few things in common with some other great recent California singer-songwriter records, like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… But those albums were urgent in one way or another, and this one isn’t. And that lack of urgency — its patience, its willingness to slowly build its beautiful sonic sun-temples — is the album’s greatest strength.
Stylistically, it’s like Beck imagined the exact midpoint between the depressive inward orchestral folk of Bryter Later-era Nick Drake and the stoned but ambitious studio-pro trickery of peak-era Harry Nilsson. There’s a lot of room for play between those two poles, and Beck makes plenty of use of it. “Wave,” for instance, is a floating impressionistic orchestral dirge, Beck letting the strings surrounding his voice lift it up and toss it around, never letting drums or guitar pierce the reverie. It’s like a beatless version of Björk’s “The Hunter,” or like the best Bond-movie theme since at least “A View To A Kill,” or maybe even since “Diamonds Are Forever.” Elsewhere, the sheer depth of the individual sounds is almost moving. The piano plinks on “Morning” are so crystalline that you can practically see light reflecting off of them, and the acoustic-guitar tone on “Say Goodbye” is just impossibly rich and plummy. Even Beck’s voice sound better than ever. He’s never exactly distinguished himself as a singer, but here, drifting into his upper register and multitracking his own voice, he has fun showing off all the things he can do with his instrument.
The songs themselves are simple, pretty meditations, and they would’ve worked just fine if Beck had recorded them in his four-track days. But it’s the production, the tender care put into ornamentation, that gives this album heft and dimension. Morning Phase is a long way from being Beck’s best album; it doesn’t have the brain-expanding reach of Odelay or the gut-clench intensity of Sea Change or the giddy sense of possibility of Midnite Vultures. And it’s also not a case of Beck refining or redefining his own sound midcareer; he’s already at work on a dancier follow-up. (It’s anyone’s guess how the 2014 version of fonkay Beck will sound, though apparently Pharrell is involved, because of course he is.) But as an exercise of pure craft and musical cohesion, Morning Phase is a deeply impressive album, a road-trip record for the ages. An album like this is a good reason to invest in better speakers. If you’ve got a decent system in your house, it’s an ideal soundtrack to mimosa consumption, or to watching the hills roll by like centuries.