Beck – Morning Phase

EDWARD SHARP-PAUL gets carried away on the waves of Beck’s first “proper” album since 2008.

Over a 20-year career, Bek David Campbell has shown many faces to the world: sarcastic folk/rap oddity, sleazy funkster, paranoid mod and avant-garde trickster. Elusiveness seems part of his nature, so it’s perhaps a natural consequence that the uncharacteristically sincere, wounded Sea Change stands as perhaps his most-loved album, the one album where fans caught a glimpse of the man behind the many masks.

It was a fleeting glimpse, though, borne of fleeting circumstances – the collapse of a nine-year relationship. Beck’s restless muse didn’t allow him to dwell, though, and after the release of 2008’s Modern Guilt, the last that Beck was contracted to release for Geffen, he threw himself into the sort of weirdo projects that a label like Geffen would never have condoned. I can only assume that he’s gotten it out of his system, though, because Morning Phase is an utterly conventional singer-songwriter album.

Though it seems like an odd move on paper, it does make sense in the context of Beck’s career. For instance, Midnite Vultures might be a weird, funny record, but as a pastiche of funk and R&B, it’s spot-on and deadly serious. Despite his iconoclastic approach, Beck has always been a keen student of the genres that he has fooled about with, and his Song Reader project hinted at a renewed interest in canonical American song. Morning Phase is an extension of that interest: he’s clearly shooting for something timeless, beyond fashion and fleeting aesthetic contexts.

Beck researched the artists that he appropriated for Midnite Vultures, but no such diligence was required for Morning Phase. Beck grew up in LA during the seventies. His father, who arranged the strings on Morning Phase, was a fixture in the music industry during those boom years: Beck was weaned on this sort of opulent, high-thread-count folk/pop/rock, and it shows. Perhaps this is why he visited this sound and its direct, emotionally honest content so infrequently. As an artist, Beck likes a challenge, a premise, and maybe he’s suspicious of how naturally this type of material flows from him – he famously wrote Sea Change almost by accident, and it was two years before he was persuaded to release it. For him, writing very good pop music isn’t interesting, or a challenge. What is a challenge, though, is elevating his craft from “very, very good” to “all-timer”.

“On Beck’s top shelf, alongside Odelay! and Sea Change

That is what he has done on Morning Phase. Though it’s ridiculous to rank an album within an artist’s body of work on the day of its release, and it’s standard critical practice to indulge in hyperbole, I’m going to go ahead and do exactly that and place Morning Phase on Beck’s top shelf, alongside Odelay! and Sea Change. Where the former’s brilliance lies in its audacity, and the latter’s in its searing honesty, Morning Phase, it is simply an immersive work of estimable craftsmanship. It has plenty of Sea Change’s melancholy, but that sense is a lot more diffuse, limited to the aching instrumentation and recurring references to loneliness and solitude. The sonic template is the post-Laurel Canyon AOR of the mid-seventies: breezy, strummy, acoustic guitars, phasers on pianos, and phrases with more than a touch of Lindsey Buckingham’s precious over-enunciation. Even the drums have that unmistakably soggy Steely Dan sound. It’s a sweet mix, made more potent by the lush strings, which hang over the album like a distant thunderstorm.

This storm finally breaks on the menacing, cinematic ‘Wave’, which concludes with Beck repeatedly moaning “isolation”, over a string crescendo. ‘Waves’ is the darkness that lies beneath the melancholy, adding gravity to the more plaintive songs that surround it. It’s this tension, between blue and black, that makes the album special, a tension that lingers after the lush production and graceful song structures fade in the ears.