Sunday, March 6, 2016

Beck - Morning Phase

There are a lot of different words you could use to describe Beck’s two decades of musical output, but I’m fairly certain that “repetitive” has never been one of them. Ever since he kicked off his breakthrough album, 1994’s Mellow Gold, with a song that lazily proclaimed “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me,” Beck has been one of the most chameleonic figures in the music industry. The hip-hop-tinged noise rock of 1996’s Odelay – still his most popular album – was a world away from the more somber and impressionistic affair that was Mutations, an album which itself bore little to no resemblance to the 1970s funk send-up of Beck’s very next album, 1999’s Midnight Vultures. Beck’s gotten a bit easier to track since the 90s ended, with albums like Guero, The Information, and Modern Guilt playing with slightly different sounds (Guero touched upon world music influences, while The Information brought back bits and pieces of Beck’s more hip-hop-oriented past), but all ostensibly coming from the same general alt-rock scene. But even in the midst of those more middle of the road Beck albums, you could never call the guy predictable. I mean, he released his most recent album, 2012’s Song Reader, as nothing more than a book of sheet music for Christ's sake.

In fact, Beck’s schizophrenic, unpredictable nature is precisely what makes Morning Phase – his first recorded album in nearly six years – so unexpected. This album isn’t unpredictable in the way that something like Midnite Vultures was. It’s not throwing a curveball and embracing completely unexpected genres and styles. Instead, Morning Phase comes as a surprise because it’s the closest Beck has come in his catalog to something that I don’t think any of us ever expected from him: a retread. Everything about this record, from the album cover shot of Beck’s face awash in color to the acoustic, ballad-heavy track list, calls back to 2002’s Sea Change. And while that’s not a bad thing – Sea Change is not only Beck’s best record, but also a post-millennial masterpiece and one of the most affecting break-up albums in recent memory – it does put an asterisk of sorts next to my enjoyment of this album.

One of my theories about Morning Phase is that Beck made it almost solely to show off his production chops. And indeed, this record sounds miraculous, with everything from simple acoustic guitar chords to sprawling orchestral arrangements (courtesy of Beck’s father, David Campbell) enveloping you with lush beauty. Beck has helped produce his records before – usually with the help of the Dust Brothers – but when it has come to his more pensive folk material (Mutations and Sea Change), he's always handed the reigns over to Nigel Godrich. On Sea Change, Godrich made everything sound appropriately lonesome and sparse, capturing the feeling of a guy who was clearly on the verge of emotional collapse. This time, Beck lays down a set of songs that, for all intents and purposes, could have been on Sea Change, but he covers them with so many studio flourishes and layers reverb that the whole thing ends up ringing with heavenly echoes and gorgeous sonic sunbursts. In other words, Beck’s more full-bodied production turns this record from Sea Change II: An Even Sadder Bastard to something more like Sea Change Revisited: What if Beck Had Just Cheered the Fuck Up? A lot of writers have noted or will note the musical similarities between Sea Change and Morning Phase, but the latter still feels worlds brighter and more optimistic than the former, and it’s frankly a little bit remarkable that Beck can derive such a stark difference in emotional mood coloring just by how he chooses to produce the record.

Unfortunately, not even the best production in the world could distract from the fact that Morning Phase owes most of its musical tricks to Sea Change. To his credit, Beck never once tries to hide the fact. After a brief string-soaked intro track, Morning Phase breaks wide open on the appropriately titled “Morning,” a song which opens with the exact same acoustic guitar chord that Beck used at the top of Sea Change. Since there’s pretty much no way that Beck didn’t realize what he was doing here, the similarity between the two intros – and the two songs as a whole – comes off more as a wry, self-parodying wink than as an egregious example of recycled song ideas. Beck knows this album is going to be heard as a sequel to Sea Change, and he wants you to know he knows it. Unfortunately, that self-awareness only goes so far, and while “Morning” is quite lovely in its own right (“This morning, I lost all my defenses/This morning, it was just you and me,” Beck sings on the achingly pretty chorus), it never transcends that descriptor. Of course, “Morning” does itself no favors by immediately comparing itself to what is arguably Beck’s greatest song. As the opener to Sea Change, “The Golden Age” is one of the most desolate break-up dirges ever recorded. Every time I hear it, it takes me back to my lowest moments, to those late summer nights where I would roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just drive around aimlessly because it felt more fulfilling than sitting in my room alone. Comparatively, “Morning” just feels empty, a beautifully ornate box of nothing. It's perfectly enjoyable, but it leaves no lasting impression or emotional mark.

To be perfectly fair, Beck has rarely been a songwriter I’ve turned to for emotional wallop. In most cases, I’ve found Beck’s material interesting for its blending of disparate styles – country and psychedelia, folk and hip hop, funky R&B and 90s alternative rock – and indubitably more enjoyable from a musical standpoint than from a lyrical one. With that in mind, it’s probably a bit unfair to expect Morning Phase to break the common cycle. The expectation is there though, fully engrained in the genetic make-up of the record. It was created by Beck himself when he decided to return to the musical well that yielded Sea Change. It was stoked when the songwriter brought back most of the musicians who played on that record to add contributions to this one. And it’s the greatest weakness of an otherwise lovely record.

And it is lovely. In a vacuum, Morning Phase is damn near perfect. It’s a wall-to-wall batch of beautiful folk songs, from the wordless vocal refrain of “Blue Moon” to the Bjork-ish dream sequence of “Wave,” all the way to the wistful one-two punch of “Country Down” and “Waking Light,” the two dusky road trip songs that close the album. But for most listeners, Morning Phase won’t be heard it a vacuum; it will be heard in context, consistently compared to an album that is better and more meaningful in almost every single way. Morning Phase actually matches Sea Change in melodic beauty, and it might even surpass it in production quality, but the cryptic, repetitious lyrics of songs like “Blackbird Chain” and “Heart is a Drum” fall so far short of the devastating heartbreak that Beck wove on songs like “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause” that it’s impossible to see this record ever achieving the classic status of its predecessor. As background music, Morning Phase actually is perfect, and I’ve found myself playing it a lot lately – perhaps more than any other 2014 record – because of how easy it is to have on while I write. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with "just great background music," or with music that is aesthetically beautiful and emotionally empty. But still, with a record as astounding as Sea Change, it's a bit disappointing that the sequel is merely "good" - even if just about every sequel ever gives us no reason to expect anything more.

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