The Anniversary

Morning Phase Turns 10


It’s gorgeous. There’s no denying that.

Morning Phase sounds immaculate. The arrangements are lush and artful. The performers bring them to life with the utmost skill. Thanks to Beck’s production, every song ripples with pristine beauty, as if the sound is somehow projected on the surface of a pond or an LCD screen. It’s as spectacularly hi-fi as a prestige folk-rock album can be.

Maybe the Recording Academy voters could not get over how great this album sounded on their Sonos systems. I can imagine how stirring it must be to bask in the splendor of “Blue Moon” or submerge yourself completely in the orchestral swells of “Wave” in marvelous surround sound, perhaps while sipping on rare liquor and staring upward through your skylight. If anyone from the Grammys wants to invite me over to replicate the experience, I’m game.

Beck released Morning Phase 10 years ago today. At the time, it was his first album in six years, the official follow-up to 2008’s Modern Guilt, though in the interim he’d busied himself with projects like Song Reader, the sheet music collection that became a benefit album featuring recordings of the songs by various artists. When it was announced, Morning Phase was billed as a more optimistic “companion piece” to Sea Change, his divisive, depressive opus from 2002. He brought back most of the players from that album — Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Joey Waronker, Smokey Hormel, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Jason Falkner —and once again recruited his father, David Campbell, for string arrangements. This time, rather than hire Nigel Godrich, Beck produced the album himself.

The resulting record sounds remarkably like Sea Change — a little too much like Sea Change — but without any of the original album’s gravitas. Some people disdain Sea Change because Beck lays the sorrow on so thick, so unceasingly, but the intense despondency is half the appeal of those songs: You can feel every bit of the heaviness he’s feeling. Beck got famous in the ’90s playing the part of the ironic jester, the genre-melding visionary, the funky party-starter. This was a severe pivot. He’d made sad music before —”Nobody’s Fault But My Own” hive stand up — but throughout the whole of Sea Change, it sounds like every wound from his recent breakup is still raw, like he is completely lost and unsure how to carry on. Thanks to the depth of feeling and the crystalline beauty of the music, listening is like immersing yourself in utter desolation. Sea Change is not something most of us want to hear every day, but to me, it’s an obvious creative triumph, deserving of the constant comparisons to Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks.

Morning Phase, on the other hand, is an easy, casual listen — an album brimming with sonic grandeur, but one that can also disappear into the background without casting a cloud over everything in earshot. “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,” my colleague Tom Breihan wrote in a review at the time. The faint praise continued: “Morning Phase is a liltingly lovely, glowingly easy-on-the-ears piece of work, and that’s no slight.” A decade later, that assessment holds up. The album has its darker passages, but they aren’t shot through with visceral despair. The songs hardly communicate any stakes at all, except maybe the open question of whether Beck can keep up the Sea Change sound for 47 straight minutes.

On that account, he succeeds wildly. After the dramatic orchestral intro “Cycle,” the first proper song “Morning” is essentially a rewrite of Sea Change opener “The Golden Age,” gliding along at the same lethargic tempo, its horizon teeming with high-pitched melodies that hit like teardrops. The songs dominated by string arrangements, like “Wave” and “Phase,” conjure the familiar feeling that Beck is singing from the bottom of a pit, while “Unforgiven” seems to glide through dark skies. Songs like “Country Down” bring back the bluesy, broken-down Americana amble that makes Beck sound like a weathered troubadour. His baritone is as textured and powerful as ever, and the band sounds great.

Sometimes, as on single “Blue Moon” — with its echo chamber of background vocals and Beck’s striking refrain, “Cut me down to size so I can fit inside/ Lies that will divide us both in time” — everything clicks together, and Morning Phase starts to feel worthy of that association with Sea Change. It’s a solid album, one that often taps into sonic splendor, just not one that would merit this kind of retrospective if the Grammys hadn’t made it a surprise Album Of The Year winner in 2015. But thanks to that honor, Morning Phase has somewhat of a dubious reputation.

It started the moment the award was announced, when Kanye West got out of his seat and feigned another stage-rushing incident in Beyoncé’s defense. She was nominated for her self-titled album, the surprise-released visual album that reinvigorated and reinvented her career, set multiple industry-wide trends, and spawned abundant memes. The rest of the competition was weak: Ed Sheeran’s x, Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour, Pharrell’s forgettable “Happy” victory lap Girl. Most observers assumed Bey had that one in the bag. Instead, a bewildered Beck wandered up to the stage and humbly accepted his trophy for an album nowhere near his best.

It’s not Beck’s fault that the Recording Academy bestowed this honor upon him. Nor is it his fault that the Grammys have repeated this pattern with Beyoncé, opting to elevate prestige whitebread comfort food whenever one of her zeitgeist-seizing LPs is nominated for Album Of The Year. He didn’t do anything wrong, but thanks to Morning Phase’s upset victory — even aside from the Beyoncé of it all — the album is saddled with a certain infamy. It’s part of a long tradition of Album Of The Year winners that elicit a response something like, “Really? This?

I doubt many Beck fans believe Morning Phase was the best album released between October 2013 and September 2014. I doubt many think of it as anywhere close to his best work. Beck probably wouldn’t make that argument either. He just wanted to get the boys together again to relive the godforsaken glory days, to “dudes rock” the dinner parties of NPR listeners everywhere. If you can shake off the Grammy baggage, Morning Phase remains a lovely listen. It’s a document of Beck easing into elder statesman status, perhaps short on inspiration but never on skill or exquisite taste. Hate on Morning Phase if you must, but there are worse things a person can do than release an album full of beauty for beauty’s sake.

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