After six long years, Beck – arguably the coolest musical hipster alive – finally returns with a new LP. Where in the world has Beck been? 2008 album Modern Guilt (a collaboration with Danger Mouse) managed to debut at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, but wasn’t exactly a splash – understatement. In fact, one would have to skip over Beck’s 2006 effort The Information and look back to Beck’s 2005 LP Guero to find an album that made big waves commercially. 2014’s Morning Phase likely won’t win Beck enduring commercial success, but from a critical standpoint, Beck is on-point, as usual. Morning Phase won’t be proclaimed to be Beck’s best album, particularly given the depth of his discography, but the acoustic-driven effort definitely shines and never falters greatly if any. Beck is still Beck, whether it’s twenty years ago or present day when it’s all said and done.
“Cycle” certain establishes the tone of Morning Phase, regardless of its interlude status. Constructed with lush strings at its core, “Cycle” foreshadows the electrifying opener, “Morning”. Sure, “Morning” lacks tempo by all means, opting for balladry, but it’s extremely beautiful and perfectly suits Beck’s unique voice. Beck breaks enough with the ‘acoustic resolve’ here, with Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. adding some synthesizer color. The ‘color’ element is something found throughout Morning Phase, even if it is subtle. Lyrically, the entire song is thoughtfully penned, with the chorus standing out tremendously: “This morning / I let down my defenses / this morning / it was just you and me…” Clocking in at over five minutes, “Morning” is no drag by any means. “Heart Is A Drum” proceeds, matching the strength of “Morning”. “Free as a turning wheel / circling around your iron will,” Beck sings on the first verse, “See only what you feel / keeps you turning.” In true ‘Beck’ fashion, “Heart Is A Drum” finds Beck at his truest artistically. The use of sound collages adds some extra spice to yet another beautiful production.
“Say Goodbye” continues the high quality of Morning Phase, but pales in comparison to “Cycle” and “Morning”. Don’t take such criticism as the track is sub-par – it’s not – but topping a sensational “Morning” or “Heart Is A Drum” is a tall task for anybody, or any following song for that matter. But how badly can one knock a track that uses the banjo (Fats Kaplan)? “Blue Moon” need not serve as atonement for “Say Goodbye”, but it definitely is superior. A gander at the personnel and their respective instruments certainly grabs one’s attention; Beck, adds ukulele and charango to his arsenal. “Blue Moon” itself could definitely be considered to be Morning Phase’s most commercial song, even if it still doesn’t fit such a mode. Even though it the most accessible cut, it still feels plenty alternative/indie. “Somewhere unforgiven / time will wait for you.” Sigh Beck Hansen, how thoughtful. “Unforgiven” definitely has ballad written all over it, but that definitely doesn’t mean it lacks in energy. There are more than enough musical moments that have you licking your lips…or something like that!
“Wave” is one of Morning Phase’s more haunting tracks. Besides the truly chilling vocal performance by Beck, the strings further accentuate the emotional intensity that characterizes this particular cut. “I move away from this place / in the form of a disturbance / and enter into the world / like some tiny distortion / If I surrender / and don’t fight this wave / I won’t go under,” sings Beck from the onset. The intensity is loftiest on the closing repetition of lyrics “Isolation”, in which the strings portray a forte dynamic level (loud). After the weight of “Wave”, Beck lightens up on follow-up “Don’t Let It Go”. “Don’t Let It Go” still utilizes strings (Steve Richards handles cello duties), but also adds acoustic guitar and piano to the mix, in addition to bass and drums. It’s definitely not up-tempo, but nor is it as slow as “Wave”.
“Blackbird Chain” adds some electronic instruments (electric guitar, organ, and clavinet) to the acoustic setting. Ultimately, “Blackbird Chain” is another solid, enjoyable number from Beck, if not necessarily a hit. Like a couple of other instances, the refrain is simple, yet notable by all means. “Phase”, like opening interlude “Cycle” is lush and beautiful. Perhaps it has little contribution to the album’s overall success, but it still captures the ears. While “Turn Away” is driven by its rhythm, the vocals are equally important to its overall sound and vibe. Strings continue to make things just that much sweeter, adding that extra dimension.
“Country Down” predictably sounds like a country song – imagine that! Contributions to this sound (a nice departure) include the use of harmonica, pedal steel, and mainstay acoustic guitar. In fact, heavy-handed acoustic guitar kicks off the track. Like everything else it seems, “Country Down” benefits incredibly from superb vocal production. Closing track “Waking Light” offers contrasts to most, blending electronic and acoustic instruments to create a desirably ear-catching timbre. “Waking Light” isn’t what you’d characterize as ‘rollicking’, but in the context of Morning Phase, it feels an appropriate closing statement. The instrumental section at the tail end is among the album’s virtuous moments. Still, it doesn’t supplant the truly elite tracks, most notably “Morning”.
Overall, Morning Phase is yet another exceptional addition to Beck’s discography. Face it folks, Mr. Hansen rarely – if ever – misses. Keeping with his ridiculous consistency, Morning Phase is easily a four-star album. Sure the album is too slow at times, but even when there’s one too many ballads, they aren’t really deal breakers. Recommended – well to put it in a Beck song title from Guero – “Hell Yes”.
Likes: Exceptional vocals by Beck; Thoughtful songwriting; Lovely, warm string orchestrations
Dislikes: Sometimes Morning Phase is too slow – aka things get a bit boring, too mellow
“Morning”; “Heart Is A Drum”; “Blue Moon”; “Unforgiven”; “Wave”
Beck • Morning Phase • Capitol • US Release Date: February 25, 2014