Beck - Morning Phase
Record Label - Capitol Records
Release Date - February 25, 2014
Sometime in my early 20s, I did the cliche. After a particularly difficult breakup, I got in my truck and drove around listening to Sea Change. It was the first time that I really got that album. I'm in my early 30s now, and Beck's early albums like Odelay predated me -- they were cool before I was old enough to get them -- I still remember watching MTV play the video for "Where it's At" and being perplexed about what it meant to have two turntables and a microphone not to mention a drum break that early in a song. So, for me, the essence of Beck was connected to his unsung masterpiece, Midnite Vultures, that funky pastiche of irony was, in my opinion, the epitome of the sounds of Beck's early career. A melange of sounds and styles thrown together like some sort of musical gumbo. If Beck's great genius was incorporating the sounds of Los Angeles into something that paid homage to the musical roots while sounding coherent in and of itself, then with Midnite Vultures, he pulled a double trick--doing all that and formulating something that was uniquely original at the same time. When Sea Change came out, 12 years ago, I appreciated it for what it was. But, I didn't love it as an album, and frankly, once I got it, on that drive around Sea Change became transfixed in my mind, for better or worse, with a sad bastard moment. And, that's what that album is. A sad bastard album.
It's funny how time affects our ability to hear music. Often, when writing for this blog, I feel as if I'm losing my edge, to quote LCD Soundsystem. I don't have time to listen to everything anymore. And, frankly, I don't want to. There's comfort in what you know and, even better, most of what you've loved becomes a renewable resource. You're able to hear new things, revisit experience, be surprised by who you were and what the music is. So, calling Sea Change a sad bastard record, isn't a slam on it. I think Beck would probably agree with me. And it's no doubt after the almost universal praise that followed (particularly when given the backstory about his breakup that inspired the album) Beck didn't go back to dig into the terrain that he had unearthed in Sea Change. Instead, we got, in order, Guero, The Information, Modern Guilt, and (most recently) Song Reader. If you haven't heard the last one, it's probably because you haven't bought the sheet music and played it yourself, because that's the album, sheet music.
You need to remind yourself of Sea Change before starting Morning Phase. As the press for the album readily admits, Morning Phase is a companion piece to Sea Change, that "harkens back to the stunning harmonies, song craft and staggering emotional impact of that record, while surging forward with infectious optimism." In other words, musical similar, content happier. And, trust me, you won't need a press release to guide your ears. Opener "Cycle" both literally refers to Beck retracing his territory and, musically, conjures the swell of "Golden Age" from Sea Change. If conjuring wasn't enough, "Cycle" is followed by "Morning" which literally begins almost exactly like "Golden Age" -- a juicy acoustic chord languidly setting the line and when the other instruments kick in, you're waiting for that pop from "Golden Age," and you get it just with reminiscent not identical notes. Twelve years on, Beck has returned to the same territory.
One of the reasons that Sea Change was so shocking at its time was that, for the first time it seemed, Beck had chosen a musical style and stuck with it through the entire album. With the exception of "Paper Tiger," which always feels like it had to work its way into the soaring twang of Sea Change, this was the first album where Beck hadn't been purposefully all over the place. Now, we almost take it for granted that while Beck may play with different styles, as on Modern Guilt, the sound of the album is going to be made to fit together. Sea Change was the first salvo that Beck launched toward being the traditional definition of a singer-songwriter. And, what Sea Change made clear was that Beck's experience crafting songs out of different styles made his instrumentation in a more traditional musical style revolutionary. Sea Change's brilliance is as much the songs themselves as the way that Beck is able to manipulate and move mood around.
In Morning Phase, we see not only a master musician and songwriter, but one who has reached the height of his powers as well. I'm not sure you'll find a more meticulous, well-wrought, or expertly crafted record this year. If Beck's painting with the same colors that he did on Sea Change, he's almost completely rearranged what he's actually conveying. And, the truth is, that here the music is richer, more textured, more surprising, and as a result more intimate than it was on the record's companion. We have a tendency to place sad or somber material as "intimate," because we're not used to people ripping their guts out in front of us. However, listening to the break in "Blue Moon," the subtle texture of a banjo line in "Say Goodbye," or the slow thumping intro of "Unforgiven," it's hard to imagine music that could be more intimate. And here, what Beck seems to be exploring isn't the vast caverns of personal solitude that he exposed on Sea Change, but something between the record (and recording artist) and us listening.
For me, it's about time. Beck belongs to that distinguished group of folks who are getting up there in years, reaching their 40s, still making records. It's no small feat. And what's been ultra-enjoyable is the amount of fucking amazing records by this older vanguard over the past year -- Neko Case, Bill Callahan, Yo La Tengo, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Stephen Malkmus -- and that's just off the top of my head. As Beck sings on the albums, closer "Waking Light," "when the morning comes to meet you / lay me down in waking light." The strings surge ahead and Beck finishes a line with the lyric "how much can you show?" For these artists, who have lived out their lives in front of us for 20+ years, who have not only allowed us in but also shown us faults and fuckups and failure as well as success, and love, and joy, how much can they still show? Ironically, the answer has been a lot more. The beauty of Morning Phase arises from it's understanding of itself. And this, for me, is what makes it more effective, more rewarding, and more intimate than Sea Change, because that album was about itself. Morning Phase is about knowing where you are. Which is why I think it's about time, because only time brings that kind of perspective. Brings the ability to go back and create something entirely new out of something old. Time is that thing that makes us listen again, that makes us remember, and only be making your peace with that do you allow yourself to never be haunted.
What does Beck make out of the past? A damn fine record.
Why does Beck go back?
The difficult thing about music, and any really kind of art, is that we're denied pat or easy answers. Of course, asking the artist is one solution, but these sorts of interviews, more often then not, tend to obfuscate not illuminate. There's good reason for that. Who can say why we do things? Sure, there are sociologists who point to statistics and tendencies. Psychologists place causality at the hands of nurture. Scientists look to nature. But music, as an art form, is one of those rare enterprises where we are asked to look at the thing itself, which is all the more difficult because we always see ourselves in relation to it. And, in so doing, the music becomes a part of us, and if we're lucky, we become a part of the music.