In 2002, Beck Hansen did something I never thought possible. He released an album I utterly fell in love with. Sea Change was one of the first times I saw Beck as something more than kitschy nostalgia act. Post Sea Change, I mostly tuned out of Beck’s song and dance act. Some find him to be an urban poet, and while I take nothing away from that, what he was doing was uninteresting to me. I knew there was something else inside Beck, something much deeper than boogie dance records or kitsch.
Six years after the release of Modern Guilt, Beck finally offers up a proud successor to Sea Change with Morning Phase, a quiet storm of an album, whose lush textures and warm vocals are still as powerful as any of his more bombastic work. While the title makes the comparison obvious, this is a record for the dawn. Armed with an acoustic guitar, keyboards, and a sparse rhythm section, Beck flawlessly captures those first foggy moments of the morning as the sun pours over the horizon, and the world hasn’t yet woken up. Those few moments when you are alone with your thoughts, be they wonderful or filled with heartbreak.
“Cycle” opens Morning Phase with a forty-three second wave of strings and keys. It’s a gentle alarm clock that cracks your consciousness just as the first strum of the guitar wafts into the room. “Morning” is exactly that, a gentle compilation of sleepy notes and Beck’s weary vocals. Just beneath the sweetness of the song, there’s a subtle melancholy that’s not depressing, but more wistful and relaxing. Beck’s love for nostalgia doesn’t escape “Morning”, as it is drenched in cues from seventies pop-radio.
To be fair, seventies AM radio plays a major role in Morning Phase. “Heart Of A Drum”, with its reverbed vocals and stoned grove, is a full on warm weather driving song. Top down; weed flowing, and AM radio playing an endless sea of syrup pop gems. It’s impossible not to smile at “Heart Of A Drum”. “Say Goodbye” maintains the easy going, upbeat vibe, but casts Beck’s voice in a more soulful light.
“Blue Moon” is a showstopper. Opening with line “I’m so tired of being alone”, you expect the track to seep into sentimental bellyaching. Instead Beck turns the song into something more akin to self-exploration. The sadness of the story is told over lighthearted guitars and playful drums. It’s as if the protagonist is happier for the chance at love, then distraught over the end result. “Unforgiven” is a hearthbreaking ballad filled with wistful vocals and a haunting combination of synths and piano. “Wave” is more elemental, with Beck’s vocals wafting on sparse and breezy keyboards.
“Don’t Let It Go” is back to the despondent acoustic guitar sharing a lot with the style of Sea Change without giving into the depression. Beck ends Morning Phase with the one-two punch of “Country Down” and “Waking Light”. The former is an alt-country ballad that shames the current crop of “country” radio stars, while the latter is a soaring tune that encapsulates the entire journey.
Beck leaves it all out on the table with these songs. Devoid of hipness, cynicism or sarcasm, Morning Phase replaces it with honesty and warmth. This is some of the best work Beck has done in years, and destined to top 2014 best of lists.