Beck, one of the most artistically mercurial and prolific alternative artists of the last two decades, has finally released Morning Phase; his self-professed follow up to 2002’s expertly restrained and utterly beautiful Sea Change. Esoteric and arcane are two things this album is not, much like Sea Change, the themes explored on this album pertain to loss, inexplicable lack of motivation, depression and, ultimately, resolution. Beck’s music has been rather scatological in the past, ranging from being upbeat and rather non sequitur to being subdued and somnambulant. Those looking for music in the vein of Odelay or Midnight Vultures should approach this record with an open mind. Even though it won’t get you up and running, it pleases the ear and serves as an apt concomitant to an introspective rainy day.
Morning Phase is a little bit of a hit and miss record, a gem at times while occasionally being rather drab and formulaic. Every second of the album is beautifully produced and sequenced with orchestral interludes tying the work together very nicely. You never know whether you are about to get a languidly scintillating piece of music that waxes and wanes with purpose, such as with the absolutely perfect album closer ‘Waking Light’, or a supremely disappointing AM radio country song such as with ‘Blackbird Chain’, ‘Blue Moon’, and ‘Country Down’. I very quickly realized that these rather disappointing songs were necessary for the album to achieve it’s goal as a fully bodied piece of work, even if they never compelled me to listen to them more than once. Trudging past these songs, however, reveals some of the most marvelous pieces of music Beck has ever made.
The flanged piano on ‘Unforgiven’ allows for a string section to dovetail splendidly and the addition of a harp near the end of its run serves as a surprisingly well-suited surprise. The percussion present on ‘Morning’ is enveloped in such a sense of lackadaisical charm that Beck’s voice not only accentuates the track, it makes it soar. ‘Phase’ serves as a fantastic orchestral interlude that gave me goose bumps on my initial listen. ‘Wave’ had a similar effect, its swelling arrangements allowing for Beck to croon in such a dramatic way so as to astonish the listener while never hindering the track by descending into any sort of histrionics.
Reverberation plays a large part on this album but it never coats the music to such an extent that it becomes shrouded or murky, it instead seems to add a fantastic and sweet dimension to it. The one piece of music that I will be taking away from this album and cherishing for years to come is without a shadow of a doubt, ‘Waking Light’. The song most resembles the sort of structure Beck utilized for Sea Change all while being much more embellished. Which is something to be noted about these two albums, where Sea Change exercised an admirable amount of restraint in order to evoke the emotions it did, Morning Phase opts to do the opposite on quite a few tracks, thus leading certain songs to become rather cluttered and cumbersome to listen to. As much as the music present on Sea Change is what made it the seminal piece it is, it was the dead space and atmosphere that surrounded it that made it so hauntingly beautiful. I leave this listening experience wishing Beck had taken a note out of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s book in that less can most definitely mean more.
Morning Phase is out now on Capitol Records