Two albums quickly come to mind as comparison points for Beck’s first studio album in 6 years: Beck’s previous departure into folk, 2002’s Sea Change, and the ultra-specific and ultra-personal Benji from Sun Kil Moon. Morning Phase in many ways acts as the sequel to Sea Change, with Beck shedding his chameleon coat for a straightforward and earnest singer/songwriter record. Sea Change happened following a breakup, and while it was beautiful at points, the overall tone of the record was reflective and sober. On Morning Phase, is similarly beautiful, but takes more of a turn towards the euphoric than the brooding, catching a glimpse of the beauty of life. Benji acts as the antithesis in many ways Morning Phase. Where Benji is hyper-specific and includes deeply personal accounts of Mark Kozelek’s experiences with death, Morning Phase is a very simplified and impressionistic look at life, allowing the viewer to read their own experiences into the words. They also work as a comparison since they are the two best records so far in 2014, masterful at the disparate approaches they take.
Because of the nature of each, Morning Phase is incessantly listenable, perfect to be in the background or foreground at any time. Benji is raw, gritty, and at times clumsy, making for it a tougher listen, but one that is perhaps more rewarding per listen. What Beck gets right here is the pristine production, sonic interest, focus and editing, and the simple quality of his voice: Beck has never sounded so good.
Beck recorded and self-produced the record in Nashville with the same musicians he recorded Sea Change with, and Beck has placed enough sonic twists at the heart of this fairly straightforward orchestral folk record, that it continues to reward. “Morning” opens with the same exhale strum as Sea Change opener “Golden Age”, but the songs vocal harmony effects and sedated rhythm makes the song more euphoric, even if the core song isn’t as strong. “Heart is a Drum” takes on the sort of vocal harmonies and effects you might find on a Pink Floyd ballad, crossed with waves of noise and a blunted percussive push. Beck saves the big release for the perfect time on songs like “Don’t Let It Go” and “Waking Light” whose final releases really put them over the top. Morning Phase may lack the detailed realness of Benji or the emotional punch of Sea Change, but Beck compensates with mastery of sound and texture making this one of his best records to date.
I find it hard to argue with much, if anything, of what Wes says with this one. Morning Phase is not only an easy comparison to Sea Change, but Beck himself even referred to it as a proper follow up to the album. If you were a fan of the 2002 masterpiece, you will surely find ways to hit it off with this album as well. It is a nice collection of delicately light melodies, all with bright undertones. It makes for an easy listen, and one that gets better each time you play the album.
Upon first listen, there were a few songs that stuck out to me as great, where most of everything else seemed to blend together. After the second or third listen however, this was hardly the case. Each song brings something else to the table, making it a diverse blend of everything you would want out of a softer Beck album. It is really a folk rock album that is disguised with a baroque pop element. Making it, as Wes said, a happier, more euphoric sounding collection of songs. It’s delicate intro track “Cycle” sets the tone, and after forty-three seconds of ambient beauty, Morning Phase is kicked off with one if its finer tracks, “Morning”. Everything to follow is well worth the listen, but the bright and stringy “Blue Moon”, the best country song of the year thus far “Don’t Let It Go”, and the epic album closer “Waking Light” stand out as my favorites. For an album that could so very easily take on a drab, melancholic feel and still be good, it is surprisingly bright and beautiful, and makes for an overall blissful listen. Beck is one of the better artists to come out of the early 90’s generation and still be relevant, and this album is a prime example of why.
I hate to be boring here, but we are all in agreement on the strength of Beck’s latest. I differ very little with the opinions of Todd or Wes, but I’ll do my best to provide a slightly different view. First off, I think “Morning” is one of the weaker tracks offered here. It grew on me a bit as it goes on, but it never builds to enough of a payoff for how slowly it moves along. It’s not a bad track, just not a highlight for me. The other song I’m not a huge fan of is “Blackbird Chain”. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I just feel like Beck has done this one before. The chorus is kind of lazy and boring as well. Beyond those two tracks, I think almost every other song approaches perfection. The little tweaks and additions become more and more clear with each listen.
It is hard to put any labels on Morning Phase as a whole. Sometimes the vocals and structure remind me of a less bombastic Panda Bear album. Sometimes the keys speak to an Allman Brothers’ flavor. Most of all, the album highlights Beck as a wonderfully self-aware producer and creator of music. There is not a moment where I think something is too much or unnecessary. There are no gimmicks like in his younger days (albeit very enjoyable and effective gimmicks). All that is left is a mature songwriter making exactly the album he has chosen to make. I love this album, and would challenge anyone to find it less than great.
Can’t Miss: “Blue Moon”, “Don’t Let It Go”, “Heart Is a Drum”, “Waking Light”
Can’t Hit: None