He’s a musical chameleon is our Beck Hansen. Athletically dodging categorization and forging his own unique creative path for over two decades, he’s back with his 12th studio album ‘Morning Phase’.
Unlike his previous releases, most of which have held fans & pundits in a state of fascinated anticipation regarding possible sonic directions prior to release, Morning Phase has been preceded by a statement from the man himself. He mused that it would be “a companion piece” to his 2002 album ‘Sea Change’. Good news for most, as that’s certainly one of his most lauded albums, if not his most upbeat.
Well… he was bang on the money with that statement. After the brief intro of a swelling string section, the opening track proper “Morning” begins with a plaintive strummed acoustic guitar which immediately has the Beck-familiar listener ruminating on its similarity to Sea Change’s opener “The Golden Age”.
However, unlike ‘Sea Change’ which had its fair share of lighthearted and playful moments, ‘Morning Phase’ is a dark, dark album. The similarities between the two are undeniable: countrified acoustic guitars, piano, dominant string sections etc. but the moods are very different. This record is as stark and downbeat as Beck has ever been. Many of the tracks feature the bare minimum of percussion (several are bereft of any cymbals & hi-hats) or none at all. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is track 7 “Wave” which is comprised of nothing but a string section and Beck’s voice. A harrowing track, the eerie string harmonies haunt the listener as Beck howls “Isolation, isolation” over and over as if he can barely muster the tortured energy required to move his lips.
The hip-hopping finger-snapping Beck of “Loser” or “Where it’s at” is completely absent here. There’s nary a sample, DJ scratch or electronic beat to be heard. This is a man sounding utterly alone.
It’s not all complete desolation though. Perhaps the overall mood is grey but there are flashes of colour here & there, mainly in the form of some wonderful vocal harmonies, string arrangements that aren’t quite as grim as those in “Wave” and touches of major scale inflections in the guitar and piano phrasing. “Blackbird Chain” stands out as being a little more positive in nature and is one of the better tracks on the disc for it.
To be honest, side one (yeah, vinyl) didn’t grab me right away: it seems to serve as a gradual but slippery decline to the fascinating depths of side two, which is where the genius is lurking… lurking being the operative word. There are ghostly shadows within the grooves…
Standout tracks are: “Say Goodbye”, the pick of side one: a hauntingly dark alt country number featuring some surprisingly creepy banjo playing.
The already-mentioned “Wave” is the darkest moment on the disc and is downright unsettling.
“Turn Away” possesses some endearing Simon & Garfunkel-esque harmonies and intimate picked guitar and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the aforementioned duo’s classic ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ album.
“Blackbird Chain” is perhaps the pick of the litter: a brilliant arrangement with mesmerizing vocal harmonies and some off kilter 6/4 timing just to throw us off the already skewed course.
The closing track “Waking Light” is a great note to end the album on too: sorrowful & mournful… with just a hint of hope sprinkled on top.
Special mention must go to the production effort performed by Beck himself. It’s magnificent. This is one of the best sounding albums I’ve heard for a long, long time. The drums have that sort of fat, dry & pure early ‘70s sound possessed by the likes of Steely Dan et al and the acoustic guitars and & vocals have an intimacy to them which gives the impression that the musicians are performing right in front of you.
This is Beck’s darkest, most harrowing and least playful release to date. Some will hate it for that reason alone, but despite its slightly disturbing nature & its initial hesitation to impress itself upon you, it is a very rewarding listen, particularly once you’ve got your head around it a bit.
Our diminutive musical chameleon may have changed his colour to a deep grey for the time being, but he’s unlikely to stay that way. Enjoy ‘Morning Phase’ for what it is: bleak but beautiful.