Beck’s New LP Marks Impressive Change

Vincent Warne

Beck has been curiously absent from the music scene for the past few years, or at least hiding in the background. He has kept himself busy producing, collaborating with other artists, occasionally touring and releasing the occasional single, as well as undertaking his odd 2012 Songbook project. But he hasn’t put out a proper album since 2008’s excellent “Modern Guilt,” a curiously long departure from his usual two- or three-year break between albums. That changes in 2014. “Morning Phase” is his latest LP, a solid collection of soft songs that evoke the spirit of 2002’s “Sea Change,” and he is reportedly going to be releasing another album later this year.

Beck has always been difficult to pin down musically, since he has experimented with a wide variety of musical styles across 11 albums. From the aggressive slacker anti-folk of “Mellow Gold” to the dancy electro-funk “Midnite Vultures,” no two Beck albums are quite alike. Until now. His 2002 acoustic breakup epic “Sea Change” is the musical blueprint for “Morning Phase,” which was recorded with many of the same musicians and equipment, and it shows. This is very clearly Beck  in the same introspective acoustic mode he was 12 years ago, with no funk or winking irony in sight. But for those, like me, who think of “Sea Change” as some of his best work, “Morning Phase” is a welcome return to form, with welcome familiarity and substantial progress in equal measure.

The album begins with a short introduction of swelling strings, which are cut off by the soothing acoustic guitar of “Morning.” It sounds a lot like the opener of “Sea Change,” “The Golden Age,” albeit with Beck crooning at a softer falsetto and the instrumentation having a lusher, spacier vibe. The same could be said for the rest of the album, in fact. It often sounds as if it were recorded in an echo chamber of some sort, in a good way. The acoustic guitar is present throughout most of the album, and some delicate piano accompaniments and warm string arrangements make an appearance as well. The synthesis of these instruments works best on “Don’t Let it Go,” a slow-moving ballad which is refreshing after the stripped-down “Wave,” an ethereal track which contains nothing but sweeping strings and Beck’s voice.

“Blackbird Chain” and “Turn Away” are the closest the album gets to upbeat, or at least uptempo. The former is a lively piece with some swing, the latter sounds a bit like a cowboy rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” “Waking Light” concludes the album in suitably melancholic fashion with echoing drums and piercing strings wailing as Beck chants, “when the morning comes to meet you / rest your eyes in waking light.” In general, the lyrical content of the album treads on familiar ground as Beck ruminates on vague existential loneliness and isolation, but he isn’t the same defeated sad sack he was on “Sea Change.” For every line like “I’m so tired of being alone” from “Blue Moon,” there’s something more optimistic to be said. On the comparatively driving “Heart is a Drum,” Beck proclaims, “your heart is a drum / keepin’ time with everyone.” The album ends with an exultant electric guitar solo in “Waking Light,” as compared to the closer of “Sea Change,” “Side of the Road,” which finishes the album with a somber acoustic chord. If anything, the title “Morning Phase” may be a clue to Beck’s new lease on life. If the album had really sought to recreate “Sea Change,” it could have been called “Mourning Phase,” but instead it focuses on the dawn, and hopefully the beginning of a new creative period for Beck.

“Morning Phase” might not be as exciting as some of Beck’s more experimental work, and if you’ve listened to “Sea Change” as much as I have, some of it sounds awfully familiar. But it stands on its own as a showcase for some of Beck’s richest, most intricate songwriting in years. The album’s relaxed tone and familiarity works to its advantage, and if you let it, it will envelop you in the warmth of nostalgia. It marks a triumphant return to form for Beck, and hopefully there will be much more to come soon.