So, like the rest of you, I paid some degree of attention to the 57th Grammy awards this year. Perhaps not like the rest of you, I was out on the town at the time, and had no idea who had won what until the next morning, after the spectacle had already come and passed. This is not going to be about the Grammys, or who should or should not have won, or about that jackass Kanye West. This will be a pure and simple review of Morning Phase, the latest studio offering from Beck. I’ll be taking a look at the songs individually, as well as how Morning Phase stacks up against Modern Guilt, his next most recent album, that Morning Phase was intended to follow up on.
Some backstory: Shortly before the recording sessions for Modern Guilt, Beck had suffered a spinal injury. As you can imagine, this made singing difficult, and as a result, many of the tracks on Modern Guilt came off compromised or undercut by Beck’s weak, almost whispering vocals. It wasn’t a deficiency that went unnoticed by his listeners, especially after 2005’s Guero, which was, in my opinion, his most cohesive album to date, and probably the best entire album example I could possibly give of the genius that is Beck. Fast-forward back to this year, and Beck’s recovered fully, and returned to the roots of his turn-of-the-century self, with the same session musicians he played with on Sea Change. The result is an album that is surprising in more than one way.
The album opens with Cycle, a budding snippet of an overture that at first glance feels like it might build into Bittersweet Symphony, until it winds back down into “Morning” with one of the most crisp, clear acoustic chords I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. More albums need to do this, I think. Somewhere between the concept album trends of the 1970’s and 1980’s and the present day, the overture, as used in popular music, was all but discarded, and it’s a dire shame. It’s one way to make an album feel like a collection of related work, rather than a hodgepodge of sound. It’s a tool that’s used masterfully here.
By the time Heart is a Drum winds down and Say Goodbye flickers in in its place, the tone of the album is well-established and rooted in. Detractors of the album have already called it “emotionless” and said that it oscillates between droning white noise and soundless void. I feel that those same people are missing the point of the arrangements and mild manner presented in the album. The entire thing feels sluggish, but also bright, like waking up in the morning against the early day’s sun.
If the album can be taken in that way, as a process of waking up and meeting a day full of warmth and promise, then Blue Moon is most certainly the climax, the crescendo of the peak of a wave about to crash back onto itself. As the loudest, most upbeat track on the entire record, it’s understandable that it was released as the lead single. It’s also the catchiest tune to be found on Morning Phase, and if there is any song that I’ll come back to and listen to often, it’s Blue Moon. That said, after the small break in progression that is Unforgiven (a track that I would have slotted in between Say Goodbye and Blue Moon rather than after Blue Moon), we get to Wave, my personal favorite song on the album.
Wave is droning, it is dark, and it is heavy, which for Beck and this album, is entirely out of character in a way that, by the time it comes on, you’re more than ready for. It’s the low point after the initial ascent, the bottom of the longest drop of a roller coaster that holds you only for as long as it needs to, during which time, you’re treated to a deliciously melancholy cycle of a back-and-forth between piano and violin that makes you feel as isolated inside of the sound as the occasional lyric purports. Similarly out of place on this album is the following track, Don’t Let Go, which musically, is equal parts Beck and Bob Dylan, while the chord progression and lyrics sound like something off of a Dave Matthews Band record. It’s a neat little hybrid that cleanly showcases Beck’s talent, as well as sets the tone for the back half of the album, which, other than Phase (a reprisal of the overture at the front of the album) seems entirely more awake and phased than the front half.
As you expect the album to wind down towards the end, after Blackbird Chain and Turn Away, it instead escalates once again. Not in volume, intensity, or sound, but in the frequency and meaning of Beck’s lyrics and tone of his arrangements. As Morning Phase caps off with its second single, Waking Light, you feel as though you have awoken alongside of the soft bursts of clarity of percussion that pepper the track. It’s a ride every bit as compelling as the entire rest of the album leading up to it was. If the spirit of the album is to be taken as a cycle, as the overture would suggest, then Waking Light is the terminus before the beginning of the next one. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the album flows just as well when set to repeat from the beginning.
All in all, I feel that Morning Phase’s greatest strength, as others have pointed out, is its production. Everything on the record of mixed so clearly and cleanly that you can pick out each individual part of every song, and in that regard, it is an absolute masterpiece. However, it definitely teeters more towards being a concept album than a standard release, and I feel that is in part due to it being a follow-up to Modern Guilt. I feel that it succeeded in supplanting the shortcomings of Modern Guilt, however, and if I had to describe Morning Phase in one sentence, it would be as “the record that Modern Guilt should have been.” Because this sort of music doesn’t appeal to everyone, or even, these days, a mass audience, however, I feel that the album will either fall on a lot of deaf ears, or never reach them to begin with. This is not modern, contemporary spoon-fed pop rock. This is the layered music of yesteryear, the sort that Beck is known for making, and it requires paying attention to truly appreciate. Because of that, while I might not leave the record on repeat a la Hybrid Theory, Demon Days, or RDGLDGRN’s debut, I also recognize within it the artistry and musicianship that Beck, to this day, still commands. His sound has matured, and he’s an entirely different artist from when he began in the early 1990’s.
Morning Phase, by Beck
Dan’s Final Score: 8/10