Beck’s career has taken so many twists and turns it’s become difficult to explain what he’s all about to people who haven’t heard him. He explores genres for just as long as he’d like to and never stays in one spot too long. When he bursted on the scene in the early 1990s with his hit single “Loser,” he was a slacker, the king of anti-folk. He was the guy who, when interviewed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, answered a question by taking his shoe off and throwing it over his shoulder. After his highly-acclaimed, Dust Brothers-helmed Odelay, he began delving into other sounds and styles — from the spacious, Nigel Godrich-produced Mutations to the sexy, funky Midnite Vultures to the orchestral, melancholic Sea Change. Since then, his musical experimentation has stayed rather conservative. But what really matters is that, for the past six years, Beck hasn’t released an album. But now it’s here: his twelfth studio album, Morning Phase. And it’s beautiful.
Beck seems to have found a sound that he’s comfortable exploring twice. He’s called Morning Phase a sequel to Sea Change, and it shows. Morning Phase borrows nearly the exact same sonic palette from its 2002 predecessor, which combined lush orchestral arrangements with lovelorn lyrics to create an album of stunning beauty. Beck wrote the album after breaking up with his girlfriend of nine years who had been cheating on him, and it’s arguably one of the greatest break-up albums of all time. When my girlfriend and I ended our two-year relationship the summer before my freshman year of college, I played Sea Change on repeat, weeping profusely, taking long strolls by in the woods near my house, staring at things—typical post-break-up behavior. It was pathetic, but Beck knew how I felt.
Everything’s back on Morning Phase: the perfectly-placed glockenspiel notes, the swelling strings and the reverb-laden vocals. The beginning of the album immediately announces itself as Sea Change 2.0 with “Cycle,” a 40-second track of stunning beauty that features nothing but string instruments. This segues into the standout track “Morning,” which melds simple acoustic guitar, percussion, piano and exquisitely-plucked electric guitar. Strings join the arrangement, and it all unfurls with some of the most vulnerable lyrics Beck has written: “This morning, I let down my defenses / It was just you and me / This morning, I ran all out of guesses / This morning, won’t you show me the way it could’ve been?” Beck’s voice has never sounded stronger, and his diligent use of multitrack recording shows him utilizing his natural instrument to its fullest extent.
Some songs borrow heavily from country music (“Say Goodbye,” “Country Down”). “Wave” functions as Beck’s “Pyramid Song,” as he sings atop instrumentation made up solely of strings. “Turn Away” presents Beck’s voice at its most evocative and goose-bumps-inducing. “Waking Light,” also a standout, is a near-perfect closer. “When the morning comes to meet you / Lay me down in waking light,” Beck sings over a blend of heavy drums, sultry strings and soaring backing vocals, all of which swell and recede at the perfect moments. The end of the song explodes as electric guitar soars above the beautiful kaleidoscope of sounds beneath it. You can’t end an album much better than this.
At times, Beck’s songwriting falters with lines like “Give me chasers of your lifeblood flowing / In a loving cup.” At times Beck has difficulty transitioning from verses to choruses to bridges without letting such transitions sound stilted, as evidenced on the hollow but generally pretty “Blue Moon.” And “Country Down” is just kind of boring. But these criticisms hardly detract from an album that, for all intents and purposes, could function as the dictionary definition of the word “beautiful.”
If Sea Change was the sound of a relationship ending, the optimistic Morning Phase is the sound of finally getting over a relationship ending. Just as he can produce greatness across a variety of genres, Beck can produce greatness tapping into a wide range of emotions. If the guy can make great music as a loser who writes songs called “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack” yet also produce an album as gorgeous as Morning Phase, chances are he’s got many more tricks up his sleeve. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another six years to hear them.
4 out of 5 stars