By Emily Votaw
Since some odd day in 1985, or maybe (probably) earlier, Beck Hansen has created a multitude of musical personalities, some poetic and distant (“Sea Change”), some defiant and funny (“Odelay”) and others so strange that they verge on impenetrable (“Golden Feelings”). All of his albums are “good,” and many of them are great (“Mellow Gold,” “Mutations,” “Guero”), but there has always been a lack of cohesion in the freak-folk-alternative-hip-hop world that Beck has repeatedly been on the verge of creating.
But if there is one small truth you may run across today, it is this: “Morning Phase” is the absolute fulfillment of whatever singular artistic statement Beck been almost-conveying over the past three decades.
“Morning Phase” is Beck’s 12th studio album, and several of the songs have been percolating under Beck’s messy mop of blonde hair for a while; leaving evidence of Beck’s earlier incarnations, most recognizably during his “Sea Change” period. Not that that is a bad thing, because it certainly is not. “Sea Change” is one of the highlights of Beck’s recording career, a sincere, melancholic album in the midst of Beck’s irony and humor-heavy discography. Famously written after parting ways with his longtime girlfriend, “Sea Change” marked a very particular part of Beck’s career, a changing direction and a honing of lyrical content to more mature themes, all while still maintaining the entertaining territory “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” trod.
The album begins with the mellow, golden “Cycle,” a 39-second instrumental that somehow completely encapsulates the soft yellow glow of the early morning sun through the battered curtains in a cheap apartment. Beck has described “Morning Phase” as “California music,” borrowing warmness and musical structure from the likes of Neil Young, The Byrds and Gram Parsons. The result is folky, if by “folky” you mean pop music accompanied by acoustic guitar and some impressive production that somehow never overwhelms the delicacy of Beck’s intricate instrumentation. “Say Goodbye” is rife with exquisite plunky guitar riffs and vocals that phase in and out, all punctuated with a solid, Young-esque drum beat.
In part, “Morning Phase” is so listenable because of the variety of sounds Beck throws at the listener, “Blue Moon” showcasing every trick Beck could pull out, from powerful echo-y vocals to atmospheric vocals and selective instrumental stop-and-starts. Although much of the album deals with the same emotional issues that “Sea Change” dealt with, “Morning Phase” is brimming with optimism about the same feelings that brought “Sea Change” to a stark, bleak place. You can hear it in “Blue Moon,” which also served as Beck’s first single from the album, released on Jan. 20. The song is still about heartbreak, the song is still about the difficulties of allowing someone into yourself in a profound way, but it’s got an undercurrent of understanding and optimism holding it up. It’s probably the playful mandolin.
“Heart is a Drum” is the most immediately gratifying track on the album, Beck’s hazy vocals at their best in combination with eclectic instrumentation and hopeful little piano riffs. “Your eyes get stung by the rays of the sinking sun/ You follow the drum keeping time with everyone” Beck sings, his lyrics meeting that prevailing happy medium of happy/sad, sad/happy. If there is anything that Beck consistently does with his sound, it is the art of being both satisfied yet still longing.
“Morning Phase” is the perfect combination of everything lovable about all of Beck’s previous efforts. If “Sea Change” is the immediate period of mourning after a devastating breakup, “Morning Phase” is the morning you wake up a little bit too early after a lonely night and things feel just a little bit better.