Roughly a decade ago, the end of a long-term relationship and a general tendency towards musical eclecticism spurred Beck to write and record Sea Change, his first truly melancholy and downtrodden release after a career spent clowning around with ironic retro instruments and bizarre joke lyrics. Sea Change was a record that was filled to the brim with slow tempos, string sections that reverbed until they threatened to stretch over the horizon, and none of the humor that marked his earlier work in the mid-late 90’s.
Now in 2014 the release of Morning Phase is upon us, an album that features more down-tempo songs, more string sections reverbed and endlessly studio-treated courtesy of Beck’s dad, and more songs which display even less of the humor and eclecticism that made Beck famous in the first place. This is in fact a stone-faced, serious effort from the same man who once sampled the Care Bears and sang about his truckdrivin’ neighbors downstairs on the same album.
Morning begins things with a slow acoustic guitar and a melody whose sound and timing are both eerily similar to the one that opened Golden Age. There’s no shaking that “sequel to Sea Change” idea when you open with a song that sounds like a dead-ringer for the leadoff track from that record. Maybe these two songs could’ve even passed as the opening tracks on the two halves of a double-album. Say Goodbye is probably the best tune on the album, as it ditches all the studio trickery and string sections and sounds like something that was actually recorded by real musicians playing together instead of a bunch of weird folksinger robots. These simple alterations make the track and its banjo-laden chorus sound livelier and more engaging than any of the other overproduced selections the album features.
Lead single Blue Moon gets right to the point with Beck’s opening line about being so tired of being alone and features the sort of quirky off-beat guitar solo over its bridge that might be found on Mutations. As a single it’s not a bad way to get the feel of the entire album across, it features most of the record’s trademarks and features one of its few real surprises in the guitar melody that pops up out of nowhere on the closing bridge. Unforgiven starts with a repetitive drum machine beat and another slow piano that’s been treated to echo and fade out with every chord. Eventually the strings creep back in while Beck ruminates on some unspecified misdeed that has him down.
Wave opens the second side of the album with an endless string section and Beck’s voice buried somewhere in it all, singing of isolation and letting the titular wave carry him away. It’s not a wild shift from the rest of the album, but the sound of Beck’s voice alone over all those strings is certainly one of the biggest surprises the record has to offer. Don’t Let It Go gets things back to normal with more slow guitars. Blackbird Chain is the sort of mid-tempo acoustic tune that characterizes the album, filled out with pianos and xylophones in the background, with Beck’s echoing and maybe double-tracked lead vocals presiding over the instruments. This would be fine, except that at this point it’s fair to note that every single song on this album has been and will be a mid-tempo acoustic tune, meaning that at this point another slowly-strummed immaculately tuned six-string doesn’t really mean much. It does have a lovely piano-and-violin bridge though, which lends something to the theory that maybe all of these songs would be better on their own than organized on a single disc. Turn Away is the second drum-less song on the album, but unlike Wave it isn’t a strings-only tune with pan actual rhythm and heads somewhere instead of slowly fading in and fading out.
Just like Sunday Sun did on Sea Change, Waking Light is another slow, somber tune that wraps up with a surprise burst electronic guitar feedback that pops through all the acoustics and strings the listener has had to endure to this point like something the “old” Beck would’ve placed onto an album without a second thought. Instead of being replaced by another tune though, it simply brings the listener to high alert before disappearing into silence and ending the record.
Morning Phase features so many of the trademarks that Sea Change featured that the “companion piece” tag seems almost like a cop-out. There are all the same strings and slow tempos and Beck’s dad string sections all meshing together in the same way that record did only this time the individual songs don’t stand out the way that they did on that record. The tunes here all march forward in the same middling tempo, with the same rough instrumental setup, and with plenty of elegant harmonies in place of, who knows, a hook or something interesting like that while Beck mutters on about whatever existential quandary is affecting him now. It would be harder to criticize him for rehashing the “sad acoustic Beck” albums he’s made in the past if all of the songs on this record didn’t blend together like one tepid string-laden mess. Morning Phase resembles a pleasant endurance test, all these songs sound nice on their own and might work better as singles or movie soundtracks, but one full-length they just drag on for forty minutes.
Since the release of Sea Change, Beck’s work has gotten more and more serious and less and less like the songwriter who made it big in the first place. Even his “return-to-form” Sea Change followup Guero was more restrained and lacked the same weirdness and humor that his earlier records have. This new approach continued through The Information, his semi-concept record about he was convinced the world was drowning in too much data, and the Danger Mouse collaboration that was entitled fucking Modern Guilt. You could argue that Beck has just gotten older and outgrown the snotty brat who sang about being a loser and getting tacos from Satan, but that’s not an explanation for his music sinking this far into the murk of this many strings and slowly strummed acoustics. Other acts have managed to grow older without becoming so sullen that it makes them appear to have almost become entirely different people. Really, if this is what maturity sounds like then maybe Beck shouldn’t have bothered growing up in the first place.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.