With the exception of David Bowie, it’s hard to think of many modern musicians who have a catalogue as diverse as Beck Hansen. His voice has that bizarre malleable quality to it that allows for seamless transition between different genres, sometimes on the same song. At this point, we’ve seen him try his hand at Funk, Blues, Hip-Hop and pretty much everything in between. He has built up such a reputation for being a fickle musical prankster, that any time a song or album sounds remotely like another work of his, fans use it as a point of criticism – the exact opposite of the problem most mainstream acts have to face with their fan base.
Several weeks before it’s release, many fans of Beck were already pigeonholing his new album Morning Phase as nothing more than a “sequel” to his 2002 album Sea Change. Many fans are only excited for the second album he has coming out in 2014, a “dance” album of some kind which is rumored to have collaborations with Flying Lotus and Pharrell. Others were disappointed by the mellow, folky sound of the new album after the three singles he released in the summer of 2013, which had an experimental Pop feel to them. All of this is incredibly depressing, not just because it reveals that the majority of fans don’t like “serious” Beck, but because Morning Phase is probably the best album to be released in 2014 thus far.
The album begins with a quiet orchestral intro before the first full track “Morning” kicks off with Hansen strumming the guitar while bells and piano ring ethereally in the background. The drum beat is slow and light, while his voice is drenched in an a staggering amount of reverb that fades into ambient noise with the close of each line. More and more Panda Bear-esque harmonies get added until the strings from the intro return, ushering in a chorus where we get a taste of what it would sound like if there was an entire choir of Beck Hansens. At five and a half minutes long, the song is larger than what we tend to expect from him, both in a literal and a figurative sense.
Nigel Godrich, who produced both Sea Change and 1998’s Mutations for Beck, as well as albums for Paul McCartney and most famously Radiohead, employs many of these production techniques throughout the album, but they never feel stale or repetitive. The same ambient noise kicks off “Heart Is A Drum”, a more upbeat – but just as atmospheric – Pop song, this time coupled with analogue synths, bluesy piano riffing and rhythmic guitar arpeggios while he sings about “blinding sunlight”. Towards the end of the track, some bizarre samples appear that are somewhat reminiscent of the rewind effect on The Beatles‘ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It’s subtle moments like this that let us know that even though he may have settled into one genre for this album, Beck’s experimentalism hasn’t diminished one bit.
“Heart Is A Drum”:
One friend of mine suggested that if you combine the tracks of this album and Sea Change into one playlist with the sons interspersed, the difference between the two albums would be virtually indistinguishable, but I disagree. Even though Sea Change had some of the deepest, darkest songwriting Beck has ever done, there was still a certain sense of novelty to it, at least on the first listen. It felt like watching an actor play against type, a goofy comedian trying his hand at drama and absolutely nailing it. Twelve years later we have seen him do both goofy and serious in his musical career, but after six years of being inactive – apparently because of a serious back injury – the songs here have a more seasoned, mature feeling to them than any of his previous albums.
The strings and ornamentation are more lush than they were on Change, and the vocal harmonies and backing tracks are ever-so-slightly more complex. There are jazzier chords and more intricate guitar arrangements, and the presence of other musicians can be felt more than before. But the biggest difference is the lack of gloom. Sea Change was written in the wake of a brutal split with actress Winona Ryder, and even the most upbeat tracks had a tinge of self-loathing to them.
Lead single “Lost Cause” was probably the most bleak thing we had ever heard him record at the time of its release. Here, the lead single is “Blue Moon”, a gorgeous 70’s-esque Folk Rock ballad with a constantly shifting drum beat that ends with a spectacular bit of guitar noodling. Both albums may lack the loopy sample-fueled energy of albums like Odelay and Guero but there is no doubt that happily married Beck (to actress Marissa Ribisi) sounds a lot less depressing than just-dumped Beck.
There are a number of recurring lyrical themes throughout the album, but almost every song has a reference to either the sun or the moon in some respect. Beck’s last album, 2008’s excellent Danger Mouse-produced Modern Guilt had a lot of existential pondering going on in the lyrics, and some of that is retained here, but with a seemingly more positive outlook. On Guilt, everything felt frustrated – the title track spoke of “feeling uptight in the city” and the bombastic single “Chemtrails” had a vaguely apocalyptic environmental message to it. Here the lyrics are often about being in awe of natural beauty, and life itself.
One of the most striking moments in the album is the track “Wave”, which features pretty much nothing but his voice, ambient noise, and a 3-chord string progression similar to the one in the intro. “If I surrender / And I don’t fight this wave / I won’t go under / I’ll only be carried away” he sings, with a vibrato at the end of the final line that we have never really heard from him before. It’s nothing short of amazing that the guy who was once written off as nothing more than a “joke-rapper” for singles like “Loser” and “Where It’s At” has come so far.
It seems strange that we have to even address the fact (let alone focus the majority of an album review on it) that an artist’s new album sounds similar to one of his previous ones. But Beck is no ordinary artist. His fan base continues to be one of the most unique and confusing groups of people in modern music. Morning Phase may not be his best album, but it is as good a testament to his versatility as a songwriter as any of his previous records. It is a beautiful, glimmering meld of different musical styles and techniques that demonstrates some of his most mature songwriting to date, and only makes us anticipate his second album of the year even more, no matter WHAT it sounds like.
Purchase: Beck – Morning Phase (iTunes)
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