“That album’s emotional core has its own gravitational pull, but it’s a far cry from the convulsive hodgepodge of sound that has come to be Beck’s trademark”.
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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
Over the past few years, it’s become common to think of Beck as two different musicians, as if music critics have diagnosed him with schizophrenia. We have Fun Beck, whose sonic collages and curious stream-of-consciousness babbling produced gems like Odelay, Midnite Vultures, and of course, his initial claim to fame back in 1994 (before most Cal Poly freshmen were born), “Loser.”
Depending on who you talk to, that makes Despondent Beck either the Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, but the masterpiece that is 2002’s Sea Change — the platonic ideal of a breakup album — is indisputable. That album’s emotional core has its own gravitational pull, but it’s a far cry from the convulsive hodgepodge of sound that has come to be Beck’s trademark. So when it was announced this past year that his first real album in six years would be a spiritual successor to Sea Change, fans tempered their nervousness with excitement.
We shouldn’t have worried. Morning Phase might be the best album Beck’s ever made.
As a sequel to Sea Change, the link is clear. Both eschew Beck’s signature samplers and drum machines, both deal with an overwhelming sense of loss and both are primarily written in the second person, addressed to a lover who is either gone or on her way out the door. Morning Phase’s instrumentation is much more varied than the acoustic super-minimalism of Sea Change, bringing the focus to a gorgeous array of strings instead of just a guitar. The full-bodied sound of the two-song opening sequence of “Cycle” and “Morning” immediately show Beck is willing to sacrifice a little intimacy for sheer weight.
If your familiarity with Beck extends to “Loser” and maybe a track or two from Odelay, you might be taken aback by his gorgeous singing voice, but fans will be justifiably excited to hear his subdued tenor take center stage again. His is the only voice on the album, and his countermelodies on tracks such as “Waking Light” have the capacity to be absolutely arresting.
What we’re left with is an album that becomes totally immersive, cinematic and profoundly melancholic. With its huge string section, “Wave” could practically score an HBO show, ratcheting up the tension until the unsettling coda, which finds Beck repeating the word “isolation” three or four times.
Morning Phase has the capacity to be more full and confident than Arcade Fire, which results in a surprisingly easy start-to-finish listen, even though the tempos don’t vary much. In addition to songwriting and some instrumentation, Beck also produced the record masterfully. The piano interspersed throughout the record has astonishing depth in tone and never tinkles around in the upper registers. Along with the cello, that always holds its ground as a heavy-bodied anchor, laying the solid rock foundation above which Beck’s familiar voice floats.
Occasionally, Morning Phase is nothing short of stunning. “Blackbird Chain” sounds like it could have snuck onto the second half of Guero if not for the overwhelming sense of crushing loss. “A keepsake in a dresser drawer from who-knows-where,” he sings with a measured calm. “A symbol of your exegesis and a full-length mirror.”
Even when the tempo threatens to pick up, like it does on “Country Down,” Beck stays permanently grounded. The track bears many of the hallmarks of Beck’s contemporary, Jeff Tweedy, but there’s no doubt about its authorship when Beck laments that “there’s no frame around your picture, just a view through my backdoor.”
Those few still on the fence by the end of Morning Phase will find it difficult not to be won over by the triumphant “Waking Light” and its throwback to the Let It Be-era Beatles. It’s the perfect note to go out on, rife with hopeful images of fading memory and the first rays of sunlight.
In July, Beck will turn 44. His 20-year career to this point has been a model of creativity and musical diversity marked by more than a few entrances and exits to cultural relevance. The end of that illustrious career may be a long way off, but when we do look back, it’s entirely possible that Morning Phase is the crown jewel of Beck’s entire discography.