Beck - Morning Phase

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.

Morning Phase is out 2/25 on Capitol. Stream it at NPR.

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Comments (59)
  1. Agreed. Pretty (good) album. Not his best, but considerably better than everything since Sea Change, and from a crafting point of view, it’s very meticulously built. I sense there’s a great deal of listeners who will let their sentimental relationship with Sea Change from seeing that solid replication of a former self does not equate to something that should be propped up too highly.

  2. It’s definitely his best since Sea Change, although I’ve always said Modern Guilt was under-rated.

    • “Modern Guilt” and “The Information” were brilliant albums. I have no idea why I’m suddenly hearing a lot of diminishing of those records. They were two of the best albums of his career. Compared to them, “Morning Phase” is a weak record to me, “Sea Change”‘s pale, distant cousin.

      • I agree that Modern Guilt and The Information were great!. You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy Morning Phase. It’s not a road trip album as the author suggests.

        • Three to agree, I think The Information and Modern Guilt are great albums. Perhaps I’m “Beck-Biased “, I’ve enjoyed each one of his records on their own merit. Great point by Tom Breihan, Morning Phase has patience, which I think shows tact rather than lack of inspiration.

          • No love for Guero? I thought it was a great album and underrated. Mutations was the album that got me into Beck. Sea Change is amazing, but I don’t think he has released a ‘bad’ album. All of his albums contain some amazing music.

            At the end of the day, you can’t expect to love every single thing he has done, considering how wide a range of music he has created.

  3. Modern Guilt IS underrated. Why is that?

    • Danger Mouse fatigue?

      • Danger Mouse and Beck fatigue. The Information is amazing too, Beck has to left us 6 years without an album for us to appreciate his work properly

        • …Which is an interesting statement to make, seeing that another LP will follow at some point this year, and you have to wonder if by then, we will again be too fatigued to appreciate it properly.

          Don’t be such a Justin, Beck.

          • I think he’s being more of a 2005 Conor than a 2013 Justin.

            JT gave us two albums of dance-pop that left us no choice but to deem one better than the other.

            In 2005 when Bright Eyes released two stylistically different albums (on the same day no less) it let us pick sides (I was always a “Digital Ash…” kid). Or better yet, he gave us a Morning record and a Night record.

            Even though he’s spreading his two albums out this year (similar to JT last year), I feel the end result will be two distinct albums that won’t be easy to compare. But Lord knows we’ll try. This is the Internet dammit!

          • Since so nearly all of Beck’s albums are stylistically different from one another, it’s understood I’ll always have trouble comparing his albums. I love Midnite Vultures–when I’m in the mood for it. But I can’t justifiably compare it to Sea Change just like I can’t compare Morning Phase to any of Beck’s previous work other than Sea Change or maybe Mutations.

            What resonates with me on this record as mentioned in Tom’s review is that settled and patient feeling throughout. The genre jumping is always an exciting and fun piece to Beck’s music, but this stepping back and refining (at least that’s what i get from it) stands out in its own way–and I really appreciate it here.

            Regarding Beck fatigue? Ø [EMPTY SET] Does not compute.

        • I love The Information and the music video that came with my version

  4. sorry, it’s good, but it’s sea change part two. per a friend’s suggestion, i combined sea change and morning phase by interspersing each song (golden age, then morning, then…blah). there is virtually zero difference between songs.

    also guero rules, what the hell are yall talking about?

  5. I like it a whole lot. Probably listened to it 30 times or so already. The production is indeed phenomenal and probably his single greatest achievement in that regard. I think the melodies are incredibly strong and affecting, and the arrangements are straight up masterful on songs like ‘Heart is a Drum’ and ‘Blackbird Chain’, as well as the two singles and really the majority of the album. Definitely the best thing I’ve heard so far this year. His voice and self-harmonies are definitely a high water mark in his career. Good job Beck. Jury is still out for me on whether this is his best album. It certainly seems to be the most enjoyable to listen to, but maybe it’s just the novelty. I don’t care much either way.

  6. The best part of the new album is how a significant part of Beck’s income goes to support a kidnapping and extortion cult.

    • For some reason, that never bothers me with Beck. I never think about it.
      Tom Cruise’s affiliation with Scientology? That dude’s insane as is his “religion”. I can’t watch any of his films without that as the pretense.
      Beck’s affiliation? Whatever, he made Odelay and defined how I’ve heard music since childhood.

      • I think there’s the whole “ability to relate” factor, as well. Bizarre public antics aside, Tom Cruise plays larger than life roles. For my whole life, his name’s been interchangeable with “movie star.” When the Scientology stuff comes out, there’s really nothing to remind me that he’s ultimately a human being.

        On the other hand, Beck wrote one of the great break-up albums of all time, and a bunch of other great albums where the general vibe was “I’m going to try to amuse myself, and if you want to listen in, that’s cool.” I can relate to that. If I had talent, I’d try to do that. As bizarre and socially harmful as his belief system appears to be, I find some comfort in recognizing that even a dude who believes all that still gets his heart broken and likes his sexx jams. One of my favorite things about art in general is that it reminds us of the universality of the human experience and all that.

    • http://www.lermanet.com/beck

      “It is a normal, compassionate response for Beck’s friends and fans to want him to get out of Scientology, once they’ve learned what it’s really about.. However, any attempts to persuade Beck (or any Scientologist) to leave Scientology should be left to a professional exit counselor. Trying to force a person out of Scientology could be regarded by the courts as kidnapping and/or a violation of his civil rights. Beck or any Scientologist must make the decision to leave the cult on his own. The best way for a lay person to behave around an active Scientologist is to be supportive of him as a human being (but do not say you support Scientology!) and keep the lines of communication open.”

    • This is why I illegally download the shit out of his work.

    • yeah I feel the same sometimes, especially around his thoughts around chemtrails. uggh.

  7. I love this record – Morning, Heart Like A Drum, Wave and Turn Away in particular. It’s like Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel and the Stray Gators blended together and poured out like sonic honey. Some of it’s a bit too same-y sounding to me, but it seems idiotic to complain about music this beautiful.

    Like others have said, his last 3 records are really under-rated. I’ve gone back to listen to them all (except Guerolito, which I just couldn’t bring myself to do) and aside from a few underwhelming tracks here and there, they’re all great.

    As for “the hills roll by like centuries”, it takes centuries for hills to form, so that seems like a pretty great lyric to me.

  8. Really love the two releases from this album thus far. I am really looking forward to the album, and this write up only makes me want to listen to it more. Love Sea Change, and bringing back the musicians esthetic etc from that album is much needed right now. Beck is our mid-sixties Dylan.

  9. I love the fact that you consider MIdnite Vultures one of his best albums, even when you call it MIDNIGHT Vultures. Yes, it’s one of my favorites, and that’s the reason I can be a little nerdy about its name.

  10. This is akin more to Mutations, in my view.

  11. Mutations was the original Sea Change.

  12. i hope that next, dancier record is going to be in the vein of “i won’t be long”. that song owns my effing face.

  13. IRM is better than Guero and Modern Guilt? I think not..

  14. Mostly agreed with this eval, though I get the sense that I like this one a bit more.

    I usually don’t do this, but since I’m trying to get more words on “paper” (screen) I started writing whole reviews, so here are some thoughts: “The songs on Sea Change wallowed, but did so in such a beautiful way that it was hard not to get swept away in his sadness. Morning Phase is more hopeful, but as a result comes off a bit breezier…”

    Full thing here: http://factsopinionsreviews.blogspot.com/2014/02/beck-morning-phase.html

    • Nice review, told me what I was hoping to read. I like Sea Change a lot, but that stretch from End of the Day to Already Dead is bleak stuff and pretty rough going for me. “Breezier” is exactly what I want.

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  16. He appeared with a love for hip hop, cheap beer, and the collected works of Night Ranger. He gave us funk music about taking that special someone up to Glendale for a real good meal. He recorded a gorgeous folk album and followed it up with inferior tropicalia. Why? Because he could? Nay, because he must! He made an album with Danger Mouse when no one else would besides seemingly everyone. He has come back to us now, at the turn of the tide.

    Beck for 2014.

  17. Beck to me is a musical halloween. Constantly surprisingly us with goodies that differ from previous treats. They taste just as sweet, but with a welcoming new flavor. While there are similarities to Sea Change on this new one, its not as melancholy or sardonic. Most of these songs are mellow Americana folk tunes with a hauntingly composed instrumentation. Its just as mesmerizing to listen to as Sea Change but with a more optimistic view on life. The way I see it, Sea Change is the hangover, Morning Phase is the recovery. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate Beck’s slower and more introspective albums which leads me to believe this is the real Beck while his fast tempo funk material stems from his alter ego. Whatever side you lean on, you cant deny that the man is a musical genius.

  18. Been a longtime Beck fan, and while he’s had great songs and excellent albums, Mellow Gold is still my favorite. Has it become some forgotten artifact? No one ever mentions it, which saddens me.

    • Truth. Not to be too nerdy about this, but I also listen to One Foot in the Grave (partly for comedy value) much more than Guero or Midnite V. I loved the shit out of Modern Guilt, too.

  19. It’s alright, but it’s no Abacab.


  20. Anyone else thought of this when they heard Wave?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtKe1ZnyRK8

  21. I’m sorry but this album is stellar. Not sure it deserves to be compared to any of his albums, and it has no problem taking its time which is most of its charm. If you’re going to go comparing then draw it closer to Neil’s Harvest Moon only with a Gordon Lighfoot/Harry Nilsson/Bread/Dave Mason vibe to it topped off with Becks signature space.

    And really, what could be better than that.

  22. I think this is his best album ever released. Maybe people are expecting to hear that one track that gets right in your face and dares you not to dance. This album is not like that. It’s strong on soothing melodies, strings, and harmonies. Complex rhythm and basses take a back seat this go around. This is an album that you’ll enjoy for a lifetime due to the richness in the melody and acoustic accompaniment much like Sea Change, but it’s a more even album from top to bottom.

  23. Not to be a sourpuss, but I find it fascinating there aren’t more negative reviews for an album that I can only describe as wildly mediocre. I’ve been a Beck fan since the beginning, and admittedly have a slant towards his earlier work, but I don’t even think Morning Phase warrants comparisons in quality to Sea Change, which in itself is pretty uneven and hasn’t aged nearly as well as people seem to think it has. The biggest praise for Morning Phase probably comes in it’s production, which sounds incredible. Unfortunately, that production is layered upon songs that aren’t that well written and at worst, pretty boring and forgettable. Obviously that is subjective criticism, but I feel like none of these songs could ever stand shoulder to shoulder with his thematically similar works, whether they’re from Mutations, Sea Change, some of his b-sides, or whatever.

    Beck begins the album with a song that is so aggressively derivative of The Golden Age and Guess I’m Doing Fine that I felt like I was immediately put at a crossroads. You’re either onboard with this style or not, and I fell into the latter category. Maybe I just feel like it was lazy and uninspired, I don’t know. As I said before, I’m not the biggest fan of Sea Change either so maybe that has something to do with it. I do think the two strongest songs in this set are probably Blue Moon and Unforgiven.

    There’s been some criticism on this forum about the similarities between Bjork’s Hunter and Wave. It doesn’t bother me as much as other people, but this is probably one of, if not my least favorite aspect of Beck’s songwriting. Whether it was Serge’s Melodie Nelson (Paper Tiger), Nick Drake’s River Man (Round The Bend), or Aphrodite’s Child’s The Four Horsemen (Chemtrails), it gets kind of aggravating to hear someone who is an obviously talented songwriter in his own right fall into something that goes a little bit farther than “homage” and more into the territory of “aping.” I just think he’s better than that, really. Again, this is subjective, but I’ve got to wonder where his head is at when he’s writing some of those songs. I believe this is different than his tendency to sample a song and transform it into something unique in it’s own right (Devil’s Haircut/It’s All Over Now Baby Blue).

    I will always listen to new Beck music and give it a fair shot since it was so important to me when I was younger. I think when Beck lets his insecurities go, he’s a brilliant songwriter and performer. Modern Guilt was pretty great for the most part, and I was really excited when I heard “Gimme” from his recent 12” singles series. I hoped that this LP would excite me as well, but maybe next time.

  24. Aight. Aight. Aight.
    I was walking around my hood one summer day and these two 40 yearish old dudes were out having a bro jog.
    We were both stopped at a street to let the traffic pass.
    I caught part of their conversation…

    I like all kinds of different stuff…

    What do you think of Beck? (This dude asked this like “Beck” was sushi in upstate in 85. Like it was still the pre-93 internet Beck that was breaking all the rules. Like Beck was something considered alternative or relative at all. Like he was some kind of a “rule-breaker” or listening to “outsider” music.)

    The other dude was like Awwwww. I hate Beck. He’s too out there for me.

    The other dude just kind of went Ohhh. Aaaaaa.

    I was so excited to see this exchange. God shows me awesome stuff all the time. And today he showed me a bunch of losers. So I could write this review two years later. God is always hooking me up with awesomeness.

    Dude.

    Beck sucks.

    And he has sucked for almost 15 years now.

    There are a group of sad “Left-Behind” late 30ish to 50ish white dudes who still think Beck is cool. It’s mad sad. ?These dudes missed out on the whole internet free music explore the universe explosion thing. Music is so free now, you can paint your own musical colors. These dudes are still trapped in 1994, thinking Beck is the forefront of awesome experimentation.

    Just waiting around for the new Beck!!!!!

    It’s sad.

    Beck already made his last album. It was his goodbye to music. It was called Sea Change. I don’t even like Sea Change, but I’ll take it as his funeral album. Here’s my last statement. I’m done with music. Forever.

    And that’s what Beck did. He quit music after Sea Change.

    Stereogum used to be a mad fun website where the truth could be spoken about Till they started censoring the truth. You go on that website now and read all the losers writing about how awesome this new Beck album is. What a joke. This album is flat out terrible. Boring. No melody. But I’m blown away by all of these idiots on Stereogum talking their Radio Head talk about one thing or another. So pathetic. (Anyone know of a good site where people can voice the truth about terrible music? Let me know. I wanna go there.)

    So at the end of the day Beck has delivered another piece of garbage. I also heard he’s a jerk of person from the Flaming Lips. I believe them. It’s evident in Beck’s music. This dude is empty. He’d be better off coming to my house, living in my basement, and recording and album on an 8 track. I’d produce. It’d be a masterpiece. Get back to the real bro. People are laughing at you behind your back. And soon to your face. But you make mad loot.

    Just one look from his stupid face on the front of this album…
    People were calling it Sea Change PT 2
    I had a feeling, and I was right (I always am)…

    Sea Change Pt Poo

    • heeheehee. I wish i was always right. heeheeheee.

    • You sure you’ve not been living in some kinda self delusional bubble ?

      The Flips have always got on with Beck, they’d been his backing band loads of times including TV appearances, and I’ve lost track at how many times Waynes covered Golden Age (probably more than Beck even).

      And maybe its because I’m a sad “Left-Behind” late 30ish to 50ish white dude, but I don’t get what you meant by claiming Stereogum deceives the public with lies.

  25. I can’t believe how much praise this album is receiving. Its fucking lame
    .s

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