If there’s one thing universal about Beck, it’s respect. The artist has achieved a lot in his career, and treated music as an exciting experiment in the process. So, it goes without saying that the expectations for Morning Phase (Beck’s first proper album in six years) were pretty high. We blindfolded three different reviewers (figuratively), jammed headphones in their ears (delicately), and said “write, damn it!” (asked politely). Here’s what happened:
Beck’s Morning Phase Album Review
Reviewer #1: Adam Lalama
With eleven albums under his belt and an endless list of hit singles and notorious performances, forty-three year old Beck Hansen doesn’t really need a formal introduction. The Los Angeles native is considered one of alternative rock’s greatest innovators, and has been since the early 90’s. His psych-folk sound has often bordered on pop, rock, and funk, creating an eclectic repertoire of musical gems. Now, after six years, Beck prepares to release his first album since 2008’s Modern Guilt. Dubbed as a companion piece to 2002’s Sea Change, Beck’s latest provides the ear with quiet folk compositions filled with orchestrated emotion.
Morning Phase could easily be the soundtrack to the slow-moving morning after. Consisting of folk ballad after folk ballad, this emotional journey strays away from the upbeat obscurity that has become standard within the Beck discography. Though a credible piece of work, Morning Phase seems to lack that special something that all of Beck’s past work seems to possess. Despite its somewhat boring line-up of songs (trust me, I wish I didn’t have to say it), there are several tracks that are still worth mentioning.
“Heart Is A Drum” failed to win me over upon my first listen, but after giving it another chance, I came to enjoy the songs post-modern Nick Drake feel. As the mellow plucking of guitar transitions into a more upbeat chorus, Beck sings “Your heart is a drum, keeping time with everyone.” Ghostly harmonies and classical piano add to the songs spiritual vibe.
Some signs of vintage Beck are present on the albums ninth track “Blackbird Chain.” This alternative-folk song creates tense vibes through its minor chord progressions, ultimately giving it an interestingly unique feel. Accompanied by a hop-y bass line and the laid-back declaims of Beck himself, this song creates a sense of familiarity for longtime fans.
Beck continues to bring things back to the basics with “Country Down,” a classy folk ballad with a southern twang, reminiscent lyricism, and a cool harmonica solo; this song has no competition in standing as my favorite track on Morning Phase. On an album that sometimes feels more like a movie score, the timeless sound of “Country Down”’ offers some much needed melodic variety.
Beck is at a point in his career where he doesn’t need to impress anyone but himself, and though my opinion of it isn’t favorable, Morning Phase still demonstrates more musical talent and ingenuity than most. His emotive collaboration of pessimistic thoughts with optimistic instrumentation is something to be admired, not critiqued. Regardless of my personal opinion, Morning Phase is definitely worth a listen, but perhaps only one.
Verdict: Morning Phase lacks that “special” feel
Reviewer # 2: Nicolas White
The somber strings that announce the beginning of Beck’s Morning Phase set the tone for his 12th studio album, a record that finds the once rambunctious artist moving a little more methodically. The delicate acoustic strums resemble an artist channeling the early morning introspection of Nick Drake, or perhaps Harvest-era Neil Young on “Say Goodbye.” The new record departs from the shifting rhythms of his last LP, ‘08s Modern Guilt, while still retaining some of the clever electronic glitches. But make no mistake, Morning Phase is the sound of Beck taking things slow in his elder years.
The dreary reverb-soaked keys of “Unforgiven” mark the first deviation from the mostly acoustic-based first half. Mid-tempo drums and bass pick things up slightly, before giving way to the darkness of “Wave,” a track in which strings proclaim the burbling of a storm that never comes. At this point, it’s very much clear that Morning Phase is an exercise in restraint; for better or worse, the focus on creating a certain mood proves unwavering. In this case, that mood is the roaming contemplation of the morning after.
There are undoubtedly very nice moments on Beck’s latest; at times, everything comes together in a sea of orchestral swells and finger-picking. It’s the culmination of years of musical exploration for Beck, and the growth he’s accomplished as a musician makes for some breathtaking successes. But (yes, there is a “but”), I can’t fight the feeling that I just want to see this guy let loose like the days of old; I want to see Beck teach all these bands trying to do the “90s slacker sound” how it’s done.
In a musical environment where sounds are copied and pasted from other sources, we need something straight from the source. Sure, you can call this urge sophomoric or childish; you could say I’m not appreciating the thought in this new material, and to an extent, you’d be right. Yet, Beck built his hallowed reputation on not taking things too seriously, and on being, well, a childish slacker. Morning Phase finds Beck a little too somber, when really, the current music scene needed him to make some noise. Oh well. Perhaps, this album is one Beck needed to make for himself.
Verdict: Slacker Beck > Sad Beck
Reviewer #3: Arpan Somani
I’ve always liked Beck, though I have to admit I’ve never been a die-hard fan or anything like that. Most of my Beck thrills came from Guero and Odelay, both of which had subtle but significant hip-hop influence and production, especially from The Dust Brothers. That being said, my Beck knowledge goes far enough to know that the dude hits across the entire musical spectrum over the course of his, now 12, studio album career. So, I hit play on Morning Phase, the first Beck album I’ve listened to since 2005’s prankster piece Guero.
From the first few seconds of dramatic stringed movements in “Cycle,” which then climb into a melancholic pop rhythm, I knew Morning Phase was going to be slow, I just wasn’t prepared for how slow things were really going to get. With dreamy vocals, the second track sounds like waking-up by sunlight pouring into a bedroom, creeping from the window onto the bed and into your eyes. From there, the next few tracks seem to follow suit–warmhearted and optimistic, but with a slight tone of what, to me, feels like indifference creeping up from behind the echoey vocals.
Beck’s at a point in his life where things seem to be pretty good (minus the back injury he’s suffered from in recent years). He’s married, has two kids and is heading towards 50 years pretty fast; it’s all apparent in Morning Phase. There’s a superficially optimistic vibe to the album, a cheery pop sound resting on the surface of a deeper realization, maybe the reality of middle-age waiting around the corner.
As Morning Phase moves forwards, that sad reality starts to come through more and more, as heard in the soft ballad “Unforgiven,” where he croons “Drive to the night / Far as it goes / Away from the daylight / Into the afterglow / Somewhere unforgiven / Time will wait for you.” Then “Wave” hits like the orchestral score from a soundtrack after a horrible sequence of events, with the main character left all alone amidst a sea of destruction, repeating the word “isolation” to himself. Out of nowhere, Beck brings us back to an optimistic sound, which he carries through to the final track, interrupted only by “Phase,” another minute of overly dramatic orchestral pulls.
I reads somewhere that this album is to be treated as a follow-up to 2002’s Sea Change, but for someone who’s never listened to Sea Change, this album doesn’t really hit home for me. With Morning Phase, Beck is trying too hard to hit two opposite emotions. The sad, dramaticism feels like a cry for attention, while the more uplifting tracks inefficiently attempt to push a sense of inspiration for the new day. Fused together under the title Morning Phase, the sounds feels more like Beck reaching a point of stagnation in his life, where he’s no longer pushing boundaries like he once did and is headed towards 50, really, really fast.
Verdict: Morning Phase is the sound of Beck getting old.
There you have it. As painful as it is to accept, it appears that the verdict was unanimous in that Morning Phase, while endearing at times, lacks that special something that makes a Beck album unique.
Article by Adam Lalama, Nicolas White and Arpan Somani