“Can we start it all over again this morning?” Beck asks early on in the opening track of Morning Phase, his first album since 2008’s Modern Guilt. After a gorgeous 40 second instrumental opening, strings give way into the plaintive guitar strums of “Morning”, and it truly does feel like a something entirely new, a rebirth — which is odd, because Beck has specifically said this album is a spiritual successor to his 2002 masterpiece Sea Change.
And sure, the beginning of “Morning” has an uncanny resemblance to the beginning of Sea Change opener “The Golden Age.” And sure, all of Morning Phase is ostensibly similar to its much-vaunted predecessor. It does feature the same musicians and the same California-folk influence. And yeah, even the cover art (Exhibits 1 and 2) looks strikingly similar, Beck’s steady gaze staring out behind smears of orange and blue.
But hear me out: the truth is that it’s only similar in the sense that all music by an artist sounds similar to previous music produced by that artist. No left turn is truly a total departure: even the cold, Kraftwerk heartbeat of Kid A‘s “Idioteque” had its roots in the laserbeam percussion loop of OK Computer’s “Airbag”.
The point of all this is to get you to look at Morning Phase in the ways it differs, rather than its similarities, because these differences are what make Morning Phase the best Beck album since 1998’s Mutations.
First and foremost, Beck’s songwriting is as keen as ever; songs and melodies rarely go where you expect them to, yet feel like they went exactly where they should’ve gone once the going is done. “Morning” and “Waking Light” build to tremendous crescendos, augmented with interesting instrumentation and surprisingly affecting backing ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. The two songs bookend the album and are probably the two best tracks Beck has to offer here. I’ve listened to this album about 20 times or so in the past two weeks, and I still get chills every time I hear “Wrote it all down into something that couldn’t be said / I tore it all down and buried me beneath the wave,” Beck’s voice leaping up to sing the last word. Of course, I also get chills during the chorus, Beck Hansen belting out lyrics that confess his guilt, his regret, and his futile attempts for perfection. It’s a struggle that feels very real, and that is both specific to the nature of creating art (the aforementioned “Wrote it all down into something that couldn’t be said”) and universal to the human existence: everyone yearns for reconciliation.
“Blue Moon” and “Blackbird Chain” are the most traditional pop songs on the album, but both manage to feel fresh and unique. “Blackbird Chain” has a helter-skelter groove and some nice touches of surf-guitar and country twang before spinning off into a dreamy chorus. “Blue Moon” is a triumph, built off of pounding drums and (what I’m fairly certain is) electric sitar. The song is both confessional and typically (in true Beck fashion) abstract, and resolves in the final minute with a thrilling double-time tempo shift and keyboard solo — Beck again throws in the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ to maximum affect. It would seem trite if it didn’t work, but Beck manages to pull it off. (For more, check out my review of the track here!)
Beck pushes the sonic envelope on a few tracks, notably the piano-centric “Unforgiven”, the string-centric “Wave”, and the circularly wandering “Heart Is A Drum”. “Wave” feels a little too much like a funeral dirge for it to work, but the other two succeed on their own terms. “Heart Is A Drum” is particularly good; Beck lets the melody wander as far and as wide as it wants, giving the song a good sense of space and allowing it to breathe. His lyrics could be interpreted as either depressing or uplifting, but the spring-in-the-step of the music leads me to opt for the latter. Beck finally sounds like he’s unshackling himself from the expectations heaped on him when he sings, “Day after day, it’s turning around”.
And that line is a good segue into the most fundamental difference between Morning Phase and its touchstone, Sea Change: optimism. Post-breakup Beck was not a happy Beck, and as a result Sea Change was one of the biggest bummers of an album ever made. It was cathartic, sure, but sometimes you just wished Beck would stop being such a sad-sack. He’s done with that here, and it’s refreshing. Whereas “The Golden Age” signals absolute defeat with a chorus of “These days I barely get by / I don’t even try”, Morning Phase presents a Beck that is finally willing to purge some of his demons: “I let down by defenses this morning / It was just you and me this morning,” he sings on “Morning”, “Won’t you show me the way it could’ve been?” Beck manages to change the message without losing its force; if anything, the catharsis and nostalgia of the lyric is heightened by Beck’s focus on moving on, sung as he gets baptized under a wave of backing vocals. What results is an album whose catharsis is ironically enhanced by it’s optimism, and is better for it.
Where Morning Phase truly comes together, though, is listening to it as an entirety. Each song flows effortlessly into the next; the two instrumentals seamlessly give way to “Morning” and “Turn Away”, respectively; the elegy of “Unforgiven” sets up the abstract dirge of “Wave”, and the slow ascent of “Don’t Let It Go” afterwards rescues the album’s narrative just in time for the effervescent “Blackbird Chain”. While “Wave” fails on its own terms, it’s integral to the album’s narrative, acting as the dark pit out of which Beck constructs the high hopes of the other tracks. The albums climaxes with “Waking Light”, which I previously reviewed as “absolutely the most triumphant thing I’ve heard since something off of The National’s 2010 LP High Violet”, and I stand by that comparison. It’s the best track on the album; a dark, sweeping, magisterial, and thrilling 5 minutes with a haunting melody. It never lets the darkness overwhelm it, though; the night ends, and Beck tells us “When the morning comes to meet you / Open your eyes with waking light.” It’s a fitting end to and album that seems to know exactly where to ebb and flow, and that never gives itself over to despair.
Beck starts the album with “Can we start it all over again this morning?” and ends it with “Open your eyes with waking light.” If Sea Change was the long night, then Morning Phase is undoubtedly the sunrise, the hopeful repentance of a man who has been pushed to the end of his tether and managed to pull himself back again. It’s a rebirth, it’s his best album since at least Sea Change (if not Mutations), and it’s hard not to get excited to see where he goes next with his forthcoming album at the end of 2014.