Morning Phase – by Beck
I set off with high spirits and good intentions to review the critically acclaimed “new” Beck album that I should have picked up a year ago, when it was released in February 2014. I have to admit, it is just not suited for early morning commute music, despite being named Morning Phase. So slow, and sweet – not only did it remind me way too much of the Sea Change album from 2002, but it dangerously contributed to the sleepy, not-quite-caffeinated-enough feeling of the daily drive. I could only get through the whole thing 2-3 times in entirety.
Whenever I tried to think about the Morning Phase album and how to describe it, “The Golden Age” song from Sea Change kept creeping into my memory, so I decided to take another look at this album to note the similarities. Heck, even the cover art is ridiculously similar – an unsmiling headshot of the quirkily handsome and talented Beck, with various rainbow colors super-imposed on his stoic visage. But what happened next as I searched for key tracks online, is that I fell into a very personal “memory lane” re-discovery of Beck’s entire discography.
I think it is worth doing a deep dive into Beck’s musical career as a basis for understanding, interpreting, and appreciating his most recent work. I will be the first to admit that the early and lesser-known Golden Feelings (1993), Stereopathetic Soulmanure (1994), and One Foot in the Grave (1994) have never crossed my path. Otherwise though, I think I have given each new Beck album a fair audience at each phase in my semi-adult existence, and I have really enjoyed most of them.
Without question, my favorite Beck album is Midnite Vultures; the sometimes comically danceable CD emblazoned with neon-pink stretch pants from 1999. The fact that my nostalgia for this fun release coincided with my freshman year of college is not surprising. Guero is my 2nd favorite; it is so rhythmic and awesomely gritty. But then again 2005 was a really great year for me, so my rosy retrospection is probably in full effect. Getting back to the current album, I must say I don’t really like it…yet. Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful; just too mellow for me. I have to find a way to get past my instant appreciation for upbeat and rocking songs, in order to see the clever craftsmanship of these more esoteric pieces.
One of the first things you’ll notice on Morning Phase, is that there is tons of true orchestration on this album. Song tracks like “Cycle”, “Wave”, “Phase”, and Waking Light” give a good indication of what is to come. Thankfully, these gentle pieces are broken up by stronger songs, so the whole album doesn’t just mellow into the background. And forget that overly raw, slightly crappy production quality – Beck has the resources and reputation to command the best producers, sound technicians, session musicians, guest artists – you name it. The resulting effect is engineered to perfection. “Cycle” is just gorgeous with its 40 seconds of swelling strings before moving right to “Morning” – this is the track that would belong right at home on Sea Change.
I really liked “Heart is a Drum” – it features an entire choir of Becks singing over simple guitar background and orchestral samplings. I love the inclusive lyrics here (“keeping time with everyone”) and the piano that jumps in to give the song an emotional ground and a hippyish feel à la CNSY. “Blue Moon” has a punky banjo-picked background, but with stronger and more monumental vocalizations. And “Don’t Let It Go” almost sounds like Eddie Vedder – I actually love this one! Especially when the heartwarming piano joins in again.
Some of the pieces have a timeless feel. For example, “Blackbird Chain” incorporates vintage surf-rock sounds. “Turn Away” evokes old Simon and Garfunkel, but with a freshened up style that could be performed by Vance Joy. And “Country Down” also reminds me of an older group – the Band. It totally brings to mind the style and feel of “the Weight” and other classics by this legendary entourage.
Given the work that Beck has put in over 22 years and 12 studio albums, he is more than just another neo-folk artist that picked up a banjo or mandolin to warble a few lines to play on your emotions. He is one of the talented treasures of our time, and I am certain that with a few more listens, this new album too will form part of the sentimental timeline of my life, and will probably produce a few choice tracks for me to cycle through on my favorites list as well. I’m thinking of taking a long “Beck Week” to re-appreciate at least one of his major studio releases per day –that would really set the scene to enjoy Morning Phase as it was truly intended. I suggest you join me; and I trust we won’t be disappointed by the experience.
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Link to Amazon to Purchase Album: