Release Date: Feb 25, 2014
Record label: Capitol
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi
Since Odelay, Beck Hansen has been not necessarily an artist of phases, but of cycles. While no two of his albums sound exactly the same, one can decipher a distinct pattern among his releases: after the sample-based hip hop of Odelay came the more insular Mutations, which was followed by the funkier hip-hop beat-laden Midnite Vultures, which in turn was followed by the downer rock of Sea Change. And yes, Sea Change was followed by the alternative hip hop and ’60s pop of Guero, The Information, and Modern Guilt.
In some ways, Morning Phase seems like (and has been touted as) a sonic companion to Sea Change, but Beck has collected a lot of experiences since 2002. It’s even more focused than Sea Change—the songs and arrangements have been pared down even further, and what remains is simply Beck’s hushed, hazy essence. Beck produced Morning Phase himself, and while that makes for a cohesive listen, consulting with another trusted producer could have coaxed out some of the freewheeling unpredictability that once characterized his music.
Unless your preferred medium of consuming music is notation (2012's Song Reader came in sheet music form only), Morning Phase represents the first Beck album since 2008's Modern Guilt. This return from a lengthy hiatus isn't the only thing exciting Beckophiles: Morning Phase comes billed as a companion piece to 2002's Sea Change, and sees Beck tackling a broken heart once more. Yet there's an older, wiser head here: as the title suggests, rather than wallow, Beck accepts that heartbreak is just a temporary grief he needs to see out.
Beck was, in his prime, consistently three steps ahead of his peers, paying tribute to '70s-influenced lo-fi while grunge was still king, worshipping Prince before it became a full-fledged genre, and wallowing in sad, stripped-down Appalachian ballads years before indie-folk purveyors like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Following the trinity of Odelay, Midnite Vultures, and Sea Change, however, Beck's next three albums were far less assured, signaling the start of a long, hibernal period in which one of Gen X's most iconic voices went mute altogether. Fittingly, Morning Phase serves as the artist's wake-up call to himself.
Given how explicitly Beck has referred to new album, Morning Phase – his Capitol Records debut and twelfth studio effort – as a companion piece to Sea Change, it’s problematic drawing conclusions about the latest disc without simultaneously reexamining the other. That 2002 record was intentionally sorrowful and largely down-tempo, a drastic break from the hip-hop influenced, crunchy-riff-laden tunes of some earlier releases that attracted so many core fans. It was the purest sort of “breakup album” in the way it successfully translated the feelings derived from that isolating experience as completely universal and common.
I like Beck - everybody likes Beck - but the only record of his that's ever struck a genuine chord with me is Sea Change. Imagine my delight, then, on reading the press release for Morning Phase, which describes this first new album in six years as a 'companion piece' to that very record. By all accounts, 2014 should see Beck making up for recent lost time - there's another album he wants to have on shelves before the year's out - and the decision to release Morning Phase first makes sense; if it's received anything like Sea Change was, it should guarantee him a relatively low-key return to the spotlight.
After seemingly going underground for nearly six years, Beck returns with his first full album proper since 2008’s Modern Guilt. Not that he’s been that quiet: he’s filled his time producing for other artists (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus), appearing on a steady stream of soundtrack and compilation releases, recording interactive songs for a computer game, and, more recently, issuing 12” singles on his own Fonograf imprint. And then there was Song Reader: the sheet-music album you had to play yourself.
On his remarkable 2002 album, Sea Change, Beck ditched his signature irony, break beats and jump cuts to vibe on the country-tinged singer-songwriter tradition of his L.A. hometown. Since then, the album's stature has only grown – even as Beck left his fringed-suede jacket tucked away in a closet. He has finally put it back on for Morning Phase, which features many of the same players and themes as Sea Change.
Despite all that's been written about Beck's eclecticism, his larger catalogue reveals an artist who's shifted between two speeds: quirky prankster pop and mellow psychedelic folk ballads. Morning Phase is firmly in the latter category and fits comfortably next to 2002's Sea Change and 1998's Mutations. Easy as it is to dismiss it as conservative necrophilia for the 70s singer/songwriter era, it also works as the gimmick-free antidote to the wackier tendencies on his postmodern pop albums.
One of the principle steps to mend a broken heart is to write the story about your relationship. Beck Hansen opened himself to this type of self-nourishment with the release of Sea Change in 2002, resulting in the slow and mellow maturation of a once scatterbrained artist who couldn’t set limits to his restless creativity. Beck did make his name known for his out-of-the-way antics, so to hear him recite direct, sentimental thoughts brought a profound clash of opinion about what his true disposition as an artist should be.
No one expected Beck to return from a six-year absence from traditional recording (he did give us a Song Reader project among other things) with an album that reflected the time of inactivity. In fact, the word is that Beck has a number of albums ready to go. A single Beck album that reflected six years of work would be a monstrosity, that much creative energy too large to foster.
At some point in the six years that have elapsed since the release of Beck’s 2008 album ‘Modern Guilt’, the inveterate musical shape-shifter has finally relaxed into a stereotype. The Los Angeles native has long flirted with the idea of the hippyish singer-songwriter, the long-haired troubadour penning harmony-laden folk-rock tunes from his house in Laurel Canyon. On this, his 12th album, he finally succumbs wholly to that soaring, swooning late ’60s and early ’70s sound, as typified by The Byrds, The Mamas & The Papas and Neil Young.
The lack of a new Beck album had become somewhat of a running joke. Since the release of ‘Modern Guilt’ in 2008, the idiosyncratic singer- songwriter (and all-round genius) had managed to produce albums for Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus and Charlotte Gainsbourg, co-write with Jamie Lidell, and Bat For Lashes, add to the Third Man Records ‘Blue’ series with the brilliant ‘I Just Started Hating Some People Today’, and help bring to life the world’s greatest ever fictional band, Sex-Bob-Omb. And this is just an abridged list.Then came ‘Song Reader’, an album that’s equally not really an album and yet more like an album than any 12” or CD or collection of zeros and ones for a good few decades.
In the lead-up to Morning Phase, the album has been touted in the press as a return to the style of Beck's exquisitely bummed out 2002 album Sea Change, but that's only half true. Yes, the two records bear many sonic similarities, with both pairing slow-paced acoustic ballads with lush, gorgeous orchestrations. But while the earlier LP was harrowing in its soul-searching melancholia, Morning Phase is warm and soothing, its tone coming across as beautifully bittersweet rather than overtly depressing.
Among Beck’s finest virtues — and it’s one even his stodgiest detractors have to permit him — is his respect for the album as a self-contained, largely performative unit. You can date this trait as far back as 1994’s twin anti-folk outings Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave, but it especially blossomed around the turn of the millennium: There was sexx freak Beck (Midnite Vultures), sad-sack bachelor Beck (Sea Change), and a decade later, the Beck so attached to an album’s concept that we haven’t actually heard a note of it. Modern Guilt’s greatest failing, in retrospect, may have been that it didn’t have much of an assured identity, nor did it revel in the scattershot eclecticism of Odelay.
For someone who’s been pretty prolific throughout his career, the six-year gap between 2008’s Modern Guilt and latest LP Morning Phase is a significant one for Beck. It’s not that he’s been completely quiet in the interim – there’s been a clutch of one-off singles, writing and producing for other musicians, covering classic albums and even a set of songs only set down as sheet music, but no full album of work has seen the light in all that time. And now, here’s Morning Phase, which even its author is keen to paint as a sort-of sequel to 2002’s Sea Change, probably the most highly regarded ‘serious’ album in Beck’s career.
Often pigeonholed as being prolific to a fault, Beck took an extended break from recording after the 2008 release of Modern Guilt. He kept himself busy, producing acclaimed albums for Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thurston Moore, and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, blowing off steam via his mischievous Record Club (an online series where he and his friends covered classic albums), and then easing back to original songwriting through the ambitious Song Reader project, a folio containing sheet music for 20 unrecorded songs. He also suffered a spinal injury in 2008, a fact not publicized until he was ready to release Morning Phase, his first album in six years, early in 2014.
"I won't be long," sang Beck last year, over and over, on a song he quietly self-released. Lyrically, the track was clouded by some of the songwriter's favorite themes: apocalypse, disconnection, death. But musically, "I Won't Be Long" couldn't be more alive. Across 15 minutes, it casually segued between alien synth oscillations, atmospheric funk, queasy reverb rock, and squished punk, effectively updating the post-modern glories of his 18-year-old Odelay.
Beck may be one of the most prolific musicians of the past decade, which is actually a pretty funny statement when you realize he hasn’t released an album proper since 2008. After finishing up his Interscope contract with the dry Danger Mouse-produced disc Modern Guilt, Beck then proceeded to create the Record Club, wherein he and his fellow musician friends tore through famous cult classics almost entirely from memory, after which he helped produce some songs to Jamie Lidell‘s album, dropped off a classical piece for a Philip Glass tribute, unleashed a songbook of brand-new compositions simply called Song Reader, donated an excellent song to the Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack, wrote a bunch of original tunes for Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, produced Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s excellent 2009 disc IRM, and even wound up releasing three standalone singles himself in 2013 (the best of which, “I Won’t Be Long”, could’ve easily fit on Modern Guilt without a soul complaining).
These are impatient times, in which attention spans dart and flicker, too often to the exclusion of sustained immersion. It follows that few mainstream artists are making albums like Morning Phase. These 13 songs flow like magma on a go-slow, rather than in torrents of bits. Every track here is like a fat analogue sunrise gradually asserting itself, usually through some haze, at the conclusion of some dark night of the soul.
Review Summary: We're fast asleep it's morning.If there’s anything to be gleaned from the widening arc of Beck Hansen’s two decades-plus career, it’s that there’s a certain comfort, a trust in putting on a Beck record. To wit: Morning Phase, his twelfth album and first since 2008’s strong Modern Guilt, is Beck’s most gorgeous record. The production wafts in like a soft rain, damp but not soaked, warm and lush.
As I was listening to Beck’s Morning Phase and trying to come to terms with my feelings of it, I quoted the lyric I was hearing to Kat: Alex Griffin 12:42amso yeah he’s been talking-not-talking about making ‘sequels’ to albumshe’s made like three odelays nowthis is sea change the youngerKat Gillespie 12:43amno one cares about beck anymore anyway, only 240 people seeding a leaked albumAlex Griffin 12:43amhahahahahahdamning heyok get this“when the morning comes to greet you/ lay me down in waking light”that’s thirsty merc levelKat Gillespie 12:43amthat’s stingnot even recorded sting that’s just something he says to his wife while they do tantric sex Increasingly, I found that all Morning Phase brings to mind (at best) is people far past their prime, and much of the work in getting to grips with the record comes with understanding how that might be the case for Beck too. After all, this is the notional sequel to (which is as good a marketing ploy as any) Sea Change, but where that record played with menace, Gainsbourg, desperation, horror, metaphor, melody, all kinds of stuff, this is so middle of the road it’s pretty much a strip of white paint. This is to Sea Change what every band described as the new Radiohead was to OK Computer, which makes this the Travis of Beck albums.
I always hesitate to use the phrase 'return to form', because I worry it leaves those who enjoyed the supposed fallow period feeling like weirdos, sat in the dark rocking back and forth while R.E.M.s Up plays on a continuous loop. The "had it, lost it, got it back" narrative is always a fun one to write, but in Beck's case, I'd argue that he never really lost it in the first place. Since 2002, we've had the playful mania of Guero, the brash, abrasive, paranoiac The Information and, with 2008's terse, outstandingly tight Modern Guilt, a synthesis of early Beck's bold experimentalism with Sea Change's emotional heft.
Since the release of Sea Change, Beck has tried his best to avoid travelling down its dark backroads again; there’s been production gigs, sheet music, po-mo artwork, disappointing Odelay! rehashes (we’re looking at you, Guero), and claustrophobic clatter-pop. But fans could never seem to agree on Mr. Hansen as they did twelve(!) years ago. Nothing he did could live up to the sound of his broken heart and bared soul, cushioned by softly-strummed acoustic guitars and swirling Nigel Godrich soundscapes.
Beck Hansen’s 2002 psychedelic folk journey Sea Change is one of his finest albums. After years of kitchen-sink beats, tropicalia, funk and impersonating Hollywood freaks, he decided to bare his sensitive side. Amid acoustic picking recalling Nick Drake and grand orchestral gestures found on old Serge Gainsbourg records, Beck sounded forlorn, beaten and raw.
opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis > Beck Hansen has yet to unloose himself from Mellow Gold and Odelay, his twin albatrosses. Don’t get me wrong, those early milestones sound as vibrant and dazzling as ever. Mellow Gold, in particular, has aged into an evergreen masterpiece. Two decades later, however, his two best-known albums remain career anomalies.
Beck Morning Phase (Capitol) More is more. Over an 11-album arc beginning in 1993, that's Beck in a phrase – campy, bombastic, and capped with an elusiveness that makes you wonder if you missed something in the digitized melée. Morning Phase disrupts that discourse. Discounting 2012's interpretive Song Reader, his first album in almost six years harks back to a not-so-dark-horse favorite in his oeuvre, 2002's Sea Change, a stunning acoustic confessional that allowed a brief glimpse into Beck's vulnerabilities.
The idea that Morning Phase is a “companion piece of sorts”—to quote directly from a press release—to Beck’s 2002 album, Sea Change, is a nice way of saying he’s decided to re-explore the same musical terrain more than a decade later. For those enamored of Beck at his saddest, it’s a welcome return: Sea Change and now Morning Phase find the songwriter in fully serious mode—the Beck of “Loser” and “Deborah” doesn’t seem to inhabit this same skin. Heading back to the darkness was a smart move, since Beck’s last album (2008’s Modern Guilt), while not without its moments, was ultimately pretty forgettable.
Beck “Morning Phase”. (Capitol).
On first listening to Beck’s placid, self-possessed 12th studio album, “Morning Phase,” I did not look him up on Wikipedia to see if he’d broken up with his wife. I was not fully functional: The record’s beauty approaches slowly, floats, surrounds and shuts off external awareness in the ….
When Beck Hansen went on the road last year, including shows at the Newport Folk Festival and the Bank of America Pavilion, he was in between albums, and the downtime seemed to liberate him. It was a magical tour, free of expectations for both the performer and his audience. Beck was able to survey his career, and it was astonishing to remember just how many rabbit holes he’s dropped down over the years.