Beck’s a weird artist. By turns a so-bad-it’s-great folk-rap loser; an experimental, sample-heavy fusion of rocker and DJ; a trippy, 70s callback artist; and a melancholic, slow, airy indie sad-man.
Also, a scientologist.
On Morning Phase, his first proper release since 2008’s Modern Guilt (that ‘make your own music’ stuff is invalid on grounds of pretentiousness), he returns to the sweeping, lush sounds of Sea Change. Whilst I never really got the praise lavished on Morning Phase’s ‘companion piece’, it’s hard not to appreciate the widescreen, surround sound splendour of his return. A grand, ancient- sounding colossus of an album, Morning Phase is a breathtaking return to form. His most heavy, serious, mature and majestic album yet, it might also be his best.
Heading into this album that spot was previously occupied by Modern Guilt. It didn’t get the same acclaim as Odelay or Sea Change, but it was also less weird and more fun. The addition of Cat Power introduced a new dynamic to his sound – that of just sounding nice and pretty in an airy kind of way – that Beck’s taken and ran with here. In many ways, however, it’s the antithesis to his previous release. Whereas Modern Guilt was a brilliantly simple bit of retro psych-pop, Morning Phase is slow, not particularly fun, layered with sound, and positively futuristic.
The difference between Sea Change and Morning Phase is that Beck’s new work sounds less like a slightly sad man searching for a way out of the niche he’s dug himself (and responding by making a slow, pretty bit of music to wallow in), and more like an artist finally free to go big and express himself however he damn pleases. Beneath the down-tempo vibe, Morning Phase is ultimately an optimistic, blue-skies kind of album. Where Sea Change was claustrophobic and numbing for all its lushness, Morning Phase is liberating.
Beck first teased Morning Phase as one of two upcoming albums. At the time he claimed this was the acoustic one – and technically I guess it is – but at the same time it is so much more than just a guy and his guitar, especially the decidedly un-acoustic closer Waking Light. Much like its predecessor, Morning Phase deals with pretty run of the mill themes of loneliness, longing –the usual. He’s less entertaining as a serious man with serious problems than he was in his younger days (see Truck Driving Neighbours Downstairs for a weird, funny swipe at trailer trash), and it can get a bit trite at times – Wave, great as it is, ends with him repeating the word “Isolation” (sigh) – but for the most part he avoids becoming grating. Only on the un-surprisingly country-based Country Down does it turn from clichéd to kitsch; and even then it’s not bad.
Perhaps at the heart of how Morning Phase is able to get away with its scope and seriousness is the return of Beck’s voice. Pretty much strangled by back problems during Modern Guilt, here he’s able to open up his pipes a bit more and show off his surprisingly strong voice. On Blue Moon, a more up-tempo number destined to soundtrack a feel-good indie movie, he demonstrates the kind of dynamism and harmonisation that Cat Power provided before.
In some ways Morning Phase reminds me of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blues – a slightly sad kind of album that fills the ears as it weaves between the heartfelt, even homely, and the ethereal. In terms of his contemporaries, think John Grant (see Glacier and Beck’s Waves) and Bill Callahan (Javelin Unlanding and Blackbird Chain), but now imagine them drifting helplessly in space with only an acoustic guitar, some synth decks and a full string orchestra. The sad emptiness of Beck’s vocals as he drifts, an indie Sandra Bullock filled with visions of Xenu, is tempered by the overwhelming beauty and warmth of those monumental strings. It’s an album that sounds like a journey, one that shows how far Beck has come since the days when he could only get a hit by singing about how much of a loser he is.