Sunday, May 11, 2014

Album Review: Beck: Morning Phase

Beck:  Morning Phase
Label:  Capitol Records
Released:  February 25, 2014


Beck is one of the pivotal artists of my adolescence.  I distinctly remember seeing him on MTV's late night alternative-rock show "120 Minutes" in late winter of 1994, interviewed by that already legendary pillar of cool - Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.  Along with the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication (plugged on that same broadcast) Beck's major label debut Mellow Gold was my soundtrack of the summer.  Kurt Cobain had just committed suicide and for me, previously a grunge fanatic, that gesture put a bookend on the sanctimonious purism and unhealthy gloom that enveloped rock music at the time.  I was ready for something new - something brighter and more fun.  Mellow Gold's hodgepodge of punk, noise, folk, and hip-hop was exactly that and Beck has remained an indispensable fixture in my musical world ever since.

So here we are, twenty years on from Beck's improbable breakout success, with his ninth major label studio album Morning Phase.  I don't need to cover Beck's storied musical history, but it's worth mentioning that his album output tends to swing into one of two categories - fun and irreverent, or melancholy and austere.  Notice that albums in the former category never show Beck himself on the cover, while those in the latter category feature the artist's face prominently, eyes fixed on the camera, conveying a sense of personal connection and sincerity.  So it is that Morning Phase presents Beck's still youthful visage draped by blonde locks underneath an old time wide-brim hat, implying lineage to iconic troubadours of yesteryear like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan.

Fans of "wacky" Beck aren't going to get upbeat summertime jams from Morning Phase.  This album is slow, dare I say slower than Beck's first crack at languid orchestral folk - 2002's Sea Change.  Saying Morning Phase is a "companion piece of sorts" to Sea Change (per the press release) is an understatement, as both albums share many of the same musical and lyrical themes, session musicians, and luxuriant string arrangements from Beck's dad David Campbell.  One major departure is the absence of Beck's frequent producer Nigel Godrich, who lent Sea Change an impossibly plush sound (I still audition new headphones with Sea Change's "Paper Tiger").  Here Beck handles production alone, doing a fine job and nearly surpassing Godrich in delivering soundscapes so rich and voluminous they could rupture speakers.

Despite arriving in the guise of an intimate singer-songwriters' album, Morning Phase isn't lyrically profound or particularly confessional.  Quirky free association and stream of consciousness have long been Beck's modus operandi and Morning Phase is no different.  Despite the lyrical looseness, each song on the album is linked by some notion of loss, regret, isolation, or surrender - heavy on metaphors like being buried or carried away by natural forces.  These sorts of themes made sense on Sea Change, which was allegedly written and recorded after Beck's breakup with a longtime girlfriend, but Beck is supposed to be happily married with children now.  Why so sad?

This sort of somber aesthetic is just a great vehicle for Beck's new-found singing and production acumen.  Sublime vocal harmonies abound on Morning Phase, with Beck's pipes front and center, multitracked, drenched in echo and reverb, ebbing, flowing, and soaring into infinity.  On "Turn Away" Beck harmonizes elegantly, simultaneously evoking Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" and The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," while the simple melodies and pedal steel of "Blackbird Chain" suggest The Shins on a desert detour.  The instrumentals are equally striking.  The lumbering piano on "Unforgiven" is treated with a disorienting flange effect, while the album's centerpiece, a percussion-free "Wave," features arresting string orchestration recalling Bjork's "Hunter."  With its growling cello and naked vocals, "Wave" is one of the most unusual and sinister pieces in Beck's catalogue, eliciting goosebumps long after first play.

Though Morning Phase uncoils at a glacial pace and doesn't break a lot of new ground for Beck, the album is still an immensely rewarding listen.  Rumored and mislabeled by many to be a minimalist "acoustic" album before its release earlier this year, Morning Phase actually turned out to be an exercise in polished maximalism.  The album breaths with a self-assured vitality, bursting at the seams with finely crafted sound - strings, keys, glockenspiel, guitars, and voice surge and twinkle in an all-enveloping auditory flood.  Morning Phase is a welcome addition to Beck's larger repertoire, and if the man himself is to be believed, we'll be seeing another side of Beck soon enough.

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