We spent a long time analyzing Beck’s career recently here at RIJR, all in preparation for the release of his latest album. And to put it simply, Morning Phase was worth all the fuss and effort. It’s an absolutely gorgeous album that finds Beck creating some of the most beautiful music of his career.
In the weeks before its release (and in the initial reviews), a lot of comparisons were made to Beck’s previous album Sea Change, with some going as far as to call Morning Phase a sequel. Initially, this seems to be a pretty fair comparison, at least from a superficial perspective. Beck practically dares the comparison, with the opening acoustic strums of “Morning” being a near-copy of Sea Change‘s “The Golden Age” (this mirroring was a trick that Beck has pulled before with Guero and Odelay). Even the opening lead melody from the keyboards seem to be a variation of the glockenspiel line from the earlier song. But the differences between the two quickly become apparent, and are indicative of the albums as a whole.
In “The Golden Age”, after Beck’s initial lines of “Put your hands on the wheel/Let the Golden Age begin”, the mood quickly dampens, as the lyrics take a darker turn by depicting someone closer to the end of the rope rather than willing to take on a new challenge, giving those opening lines a dark irony. The melancholic tone is summed up with the chorus of “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try”, an attitude that is reinforced by Beck’s weary vocal performance. By contrast, Beck paints a more serene image in “Morning” with lines like “oceans of diamonds always shine, smooth out below”. leading into a triumphant chorus where he repeats the line “This morning”. Here, the narrator actually sounds ready to push ahead even when confronting the past, asking “Won’t you show me the way it used to be?” and “Won’t you show me the way it could’ve been?”
Morning Phase then plays out not as a sequel to Sea Change, but more like opposite sides of the same coin; using a similar sonic palette of acoustic guitars, strings, and warm keyboards, Beck is not looking at the devastating end of a relationship but the potential fulfillment of marriage and fatherhood. Does that mean that Morning Phase sounds like a post-Sky Blue Sky Wilco record, another in a long line of “dad-rock” records (a term that I generally despise, if you want to know)? Not exactly, though there are certain moments on the album that echo the apprehension to this new phase in life like you would find on an album from The National, at least thematically. You’ll find this in “Wave”, which builds upon the slowly-changing strings from the opening instrumental “Cycle”. The use of Jim James-level reverb adds to the haunting nature of the song and complements the lyrics. Lines like “If I surrender and I don’t fight this wave/No I won’t go under, I’ll only get carried away” take on an added poignancy as a result. And the combination makes for a powerful performance, as seen from the clip from “Saturday Night Live” above.
These darker moments make up only a small part of the album, residing mainly in an introspective middle section. The rest of the album is buoyant by comparison, shuffling through warm folk and slower country-tinged songs that evoke the album title itself. There are no fun dance numbers or energetic rockers, but the album does end on an ebullient note with “Waking Life”, which culminates with a gorgeous guitar solo that cuts through and puts an exclamation point on the album. The album as a whole is filled with brilliant sonic touches that for once will make your investment in high-end headphones seem like a good investment and not just a foolhardy fashion statement. And to think, this may not be the only Beck album we get to hear this year.