opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Beck Hansen has yet to unloose himself from Mellow Gold and Odelay, his twin albatrosses. Don’t get me wrong, those early milestones sound as vibrant and dazzling as ever. Mellow Gold, in particular, has aged into an evergreen masterpiece. Two decades later, however, his two best-known albums remain career anomalies. Whenever Beck (or his record company’s marketing department) promised a return to his prankster glory – see Guero and The Information – the results were labored approximations of joy, nothing close to the delirious entertainment of their predecessors. Midnite Vultures, a notable exception, was a bright, bonkers, and fantastic funk pastiche that recaptured Beck’s sui generis spirit and charm. Yet it took a beating from a loud minority at the time and is today rarely mentioned in the same breath as his classics. So it goes.
No one could have guessed Beck’s continued relevance would be thanks to a softer countermelody, one that’s been playing in contrast to his freewheeling output from the start. Mellow Gold and Odelay were respectively followed by One Foot in the Grave and Mutations, two excellent and half-smirking acoustic compositions that were considered minor, if not inconsequential, upon release. Mutations found Beck exposing emotion without irony for once, if with some residual personal remove. With those tangents in mind, his aptly titled 2002 LP Sea Change still felt like a breakthrough. Any hesitation with oversharing thrown to the breeze, it was a portrait of an artist nakedly confronting the aftermath of romantic loss. Such unreserved earnestness may have provided an initial shock, but Sea Change’s enduring legacy has been a consequence of its glittering instrumental palette and Beck’s open-throated vocals.
Cynicism overtook me when early reports revealed Beck would follow Modern Guilt, his impressive and psychedelic 2008 effort, by yet again looking backward for inspiration. That he would now tap the unblemished wellspring of Sea Change only further soured my expectations. And so, without hearing a single note, I approached Morning Phase with little interest and even less generosity. I dismissed the album on principle. I was convinced Beck’s best days were no doubt long behind him.
It took just three plays for Morning Phase’s grandeur and potency to shame me for approaching it with unjustified baggage. As promised, the album is instantly familiar and welcoming, as if it were recorded at the tail end of the Sea Change sessions. This should come with little surprise. Beck’s backing quartet (guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., and drummer Joey Waronker) and string arranger David Campbell (his father) reprise their former roles. But Morning Phase stands alone, so surely, because all similarities with Sea Change are merely on the surface.
Yes, Beck mines his earlier album’s sonic template. But in every other respect – be it song complexity, thematic range, emotional depth – Morning Phase exploits its elder sibling’s mode to explore richer, more nuanced landscapes. This is no sequel: it’s a magnificent climax. Morning Phase opens with an orchestral fragment that establishes the tone of what’s to come and leads into “Morning,” a hazy ballad that nods directly toward Sea Change opener “The Golden Age.” With its glockenspiel accents and tender electric-piano notes, “Morning” makes one-to-one comparisons between the two albums, and also the passage of time, explicit. Once established, the remainder of Morning Phase severs that link and leaves it far behind.
Thirteen years later, no longer the brokenhearted troubadour of Sea Change, Beck is now a married father of two, with middle age peeking out of the near distance. As such, Morning Phase casts a broader net, eschewing blunt confessional for elliptical universality. Its starkest departure, the undulating and abstract centerpiece “Wave” (a composition he’s been kicking around for some time now) blankets the listener in pure mood. Is it comfort? Unease? No – it’s both at once. Beck doesn’t completely abandon specificity, though. I hear paternal wisdom in “Don’t Let It Go” and “Heart Is a Drum,” existential concern in “Blue Moon” and “Turn Away,” a search for lost time in “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down,” an embrace of life and its finality in “Morning” and “Waking Light.” Beck leaves Morning Phase with just enough blank space for us to fill in the particulars. His new songs may not be ours for the taking. They can, however, be borrowed as needed.
Morning Phase never sounds anything less than opulent. Its end run, “Country Down” especially, is about as good as popular music gets. Beck’s voice, most often doubled and sometimes tripled, omnipresent and in conversation with itself, binds and elevates this, his most consistently exceptional album since Odelay. But refinement and sonic curlicues can’t distract from a lack of innovation, which used to flow forth effortlessly. Now that Beck has perfected the past, his future awaits similar treatment. A-