3. Heart Is A Drum
4. Say Goodbye
5. Blue Moon
8. Don't Let It Go
9. Blackbird Chain
11. Turn Away
12. Country Down
13. Waking Light
Running time: 47:12
Beck. Beck is like, the holy grail of hipster music. If you have good taste in music, there's a 99.9% chance that you're a fan of Beck. It's not necessarily his phenomenal back catalogue that spans ten albums that has earned him this kind of status, more his ability to experiment with sounds and musical styles and always manage to come up trumps. Beck is quite rightly heralded as one of the most creative minds in the business and for that, we love him. 2014 sees the release of his first proper album since 2008 (unless you want to count sheet music, which frankly nobody does). Morning Phase is an album that has had a lot of people exciting for a number of reasons, but the most important being the fact that Beck has compared this record to his 2002 masterpiece Sea Change in its style and influence. That alone should be enough to get you on board with this one.
For those not in the know, why not? Sea Change, for my liking, was one of the best albums of its decade and saw Beck contemplating heartbreak, isolation and loneliness in such a grand, acoustic manner that it tugged at the heartstrings of the heartless. Gone were the tongue-in-cheek, ironic lyricism replaced with a much more authentic and relatable approach. A press release promoting the new record compared it to Sea Change and promised a return of “stunning harmonies,” “staggering emotional impact” and “infectious optimism.” Sounds promising to say the least, but a lot has changed in a decade. Beck has spent the last few years recovering from undisclosed back injuries and as such would presumably have had many a long, sleepless night spent in agony. Presumably, the optimism with which he sings on Morning Phase stems from the realisation that such pains, be they physical or emotional are temporary and this is Beck coming out the other side. Morning Phase is an incredible journey through that process.
In promotion for the record, Beck has called this his “California record,” but we're not talking about the sickly sweet sugariness of the Beach Boys, we're harkening back to the 70s folk influences of Crosby, Stills and Nash and Neil Young, among others. Aptly the introductory track is titled “Cycle” and it feels like a reawakening of sorts, and it's that glittering California sunshine that breaks through for the next forty-five minutes like a literal ray of hope. “Morning” shimmers with a delicate, melancholy vocal that drifts off into the morning sky through an open window, dust particles illuminating against a backdrop of clear blue sky. From the off it is made clear that this is an introspective record, and one that is at its undeniable best when listened to in a quiet room, from start to finish, with no distractions. Vocally Beck is at the very top of his game throughout and is a joy to behold, even when he's at his most depressive. Whereas Sea Change was an emotional roller-coaster, this new material sees Beck a little bit older and a lot wiser, as if he's already processed all of his heartache and struggles and is now capable to deal with it all.
Morning Phase is a “companion peace” to Sea Change, but it builds on it rather than repeats new ground. Beck uses his experiences as a person and as a song-writer to craft delicate intricacies of strings and acoustics around tender vocals. “Unforgiven” serves almost as the album's centrepiece, and shows Beck at his most vulnerable – it wrenches at the heart and for the first time you recognise the distress that was present in Sea Change, but from then on you feel like clouds are clearing throughout the rest of the record and skies become clear and the outlook infinitely brighter. Beck is well known for pouring his entire psyche through a blender and splattering it on a page for all to see, and in a time when that seems to be the go-to model for a lot of young alternative rock artists, Beck's vision is much more channelled in 2014 than it ever was before. His vocals provide gorgeous watercolour brushstrokes against delicate landscapes through the album's perfect running time, climaxing on the brief but poignant “Turn Away” towards the album's end.
Beck's sound has never been something that anybody has ever really been able to pinpoint, but then why would you want to? Once you truly understand something you lose the essence of what it was to begin with. But on this evidence and that of 2002's Sea Change, you could argue that Beck's greatest work is when he's alone with an acoustic guitar and his own thoughts. The strings on the album are beautifully arranged by his father, and the whole thing comes together wonderfully. Those strings are prominent on the likes of “Wave” and “Turn Away,” both of which are album highlights. Elsewhere “Heart Is A Drum” succeeds purely on its vocal harmonies and layering, while the easygoing nature of “Blackbird Chain” feels like being awaken by a seaside breeze. Such harmonious takes are so much more mature than the soul-purging lovelorn introspection of Sea Change, and as such the album feels more like one elongated exhale rather than the sharp intake of breath that was its predecessor.
Beck - “Blue Moon”
The 411: As eluded to in the opening paragraph, Beck is loved, praised and respected for his experimentation, and his ability to make a masterpiece out of the most unlikely of scenarios. Two decades after breakthrough single “Loser,” Beck has stripped everything back to basics and come out with his most soulful album to date. Regardless of comparison to his 2002 genius, Morning Phase can and will stand alone as an accomplished almost unparalleled in 2014, and I feel confident saying that even though we're a mere two months into the year. Beck has always stood in solitary spaces, almost in his own time zone and now he stands atop of his own precious landscapes, viewing what can only be described as his crowning achievement. In writing the follow-up to Sea Change, Beck may well have written not a miraculous comeback album, but a defining chapter that justifies all the questionable turns his career has taken to this point. Beck has few true peers, and Morning Phase is a work that will one day define him.