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Album Review: Beck: Morning Phase

February 24, 2014

It makes me sad to see my friends sad. Beck has been with me almost as long as I can remember. I remember hearing the song “Loser” for the first time way back in 1994 and immediately picking up a copy of Mellow Gold. Despite its title Mellow Gold is anything but mellow. In addition to the rap-like sing-along anthem Loser, the album contains the loud rock blast “Fuckin’ With My Head” and the funky “Beercan”, each a sign of the wildly varying moods that Beck would show across his albums over the next decade plus. Generally, Beck was a great friend to have – he could be funny, sarcastic, clever, loud, energetic, and often just plain wacky. When he’d get emotionally down it was still with a bluesy grin, like we see here and there on 1998’s Mutations. Notwithstanding the differences from album to album – Odelay is alternative rock, Midnite Vultures is funky psychadelic, The Information a dance/hip-hop hybrid – each has that certain something that makes it very Beck-ian. The word I’d use to describe his music that consistently applies across every album is “playful.”

Every album except 2002’s Sea Change, that is. Sea Change slots in to Beck’s discography between two of his most upbeat albums, Midnite Vultures and Guero, yet stands alone as being entirely melancholy. Sea Change is 12 songs of absolute and complete sadness. The titles of the first two singles off the album say it all – “Lost Cause” and “Guess I’m Doing Fine”. What happened to Beck after Midnite Vultures that produced such a dark album? Was he really sad, or was this just a collection of songs that didn’t fit in anywhere on his previous records? From Wikipedia: “Upon completion of touring for his previous effort, Midnite Vultures, Beck and his fiancée, stylist Leigh Limon, ended their nine-year relationship. Three weeks before Beck’s 30th birthday, he discovered Limon had been cheating on him with a member of Los Angeles-based band Whiskey Biscuit. Beck lapsed into a period of melancholy and introspection, during which he wrote the bleak, acoustic-based tracks later found on Sea Change.” Ouch. Poor Beck.

Despite the indication that this album was – I hate to say it – a sea change for Beck, he quickly put his sadness behind him and went back to being the quirky, fun-loving, alternative folk-rocker that I originally fell in love with. Upon hearing Guero 2-1/2 years later – in fact, from the moment of hearing the first single “E-Pro” – I knew Beck was back. E-Pro samples the Beastie Boys and was Beck’s second #1 on the Modern Rock chart – his first since Loser eleven years before! Guero remains my favorite Beck album of the past decade – track #2 “Qué Onda Guero” is still my ring tone – while subsequent albums The Information and Modern Guilt are similarly fun listens. But something funny happened in the 9 years since Guero came out. Through it was initially much more well received by fans than Sea Change, people started coming around to the idea of a more melancholy Beck. Sea Change was always the critical darling – Rolling Stone named Sea Change its #1 album of 2002 – but it was gaining commercial popularity over time. By the time Modern Guilt came out in 2008, people were disappointed that Beck had never gone back to the sincere simplicity of Sea Change. Not me. When I got to see Beck live at Prospect Park in Brooklyn in the summer of 2013, I couldn’t have been happier that the Beck I got to see was my old friend – funny, energetic, and playful.

Which brings me (finally) to Beck’s latest album, Morning Phase (to be released officially tomorrow; available for streaming now). Beck made us wait almost six years for a new record, so I don’t feel too bad making you wait 500 words. Before the album was released Beck released the single “Blue Moon”. The first words of that first song: “I’m so tired of being alone.” The consensus reaction to “Blue Moon” was two-fold: it was a beautiful song and it sounded like something right off of Sea Change. Rolling Stone said so. Spin said so. NME said so. Hell, even Time magazine said so.

Having had a chance to listen to Morning Phase in its entirety I see now that Blue Moon was not an anomaly. In fact, I read one tweet where the writer, upon hearing Blue Moon, said that he would be happy if Morning Phase was just 12 variations of that one song. That twitterer just about got his wish. The album has been described as a companion piece to Sea Change. Only this time around Beck isn’t reinvesting himself. He is returning to a side of his that he showed once before and that critics and fans said they adored. Even more sop than Sea Change, Morning Phase is a unified downtempo piece of art, rather than a colelction of songs. This makes those same critics and fans happy. Initial reviews of Morning Phase are glowing. But it makes me sad. Because I don’t like to see my friends sad, and this time I don’t know what is bringing Beck down. Sea Change was his break-up album – every artist has one. Morning Phase is every bit as melancholy and like Sea Change it is absolutely beautiful. It is introspective, honest, clean, and lush. But why is Beck going there again? Did popular demand result in another Sea Change, or is there something deeper and more personal at work here?

Beck gave an interview to NPR where he confirmed that the sound we’re hearing is not coincidental. “I got the band that I did most of Sea Change with, I got all of them together, and it just felt right.” He tells about the technical making of the record, saying, “The record’s pretty slow. I think at one point we realized there was nothing faster than 60 BPMs — which, that’s beats per minute. That’s really slow.” He added, “Yeah, I think a hit song has to be 120-something. When I’m recording with my band, we’re always egging each other on to play slower and slower. For one thing, it’s really difficult to play that slow and stay in time — for it to still feel musical — but it also really kind of warps the perspective of the song. … we’ve played some of these songs and some of the Sea Change songs live, and I’ve played with musicians who can’t actually do it. It’s really weird.”

It’s clear then that Beck knew precisely what he was doing when he made Morning Phase. He wanted to make a sequel to Sea Change and to do so he even got the band back together, literally as well as figuratively. That still doesn’t answer the question of why, or why now? Beck explains this too in the interview with NPR, and the reason is almost so absurd that it makes sense to be coming from Beck. When he played Blue Moon – a song that had been in his mind for some time – he needed a specific guitar which was really difficult for him to play. Unfortunately, he’d “had these injuries for years and years,” and “this was the first time I could play the guitar again in probably seven, eight years.” Once he finally recovered from his injuries he had the ability to play Blue Moon and naturally he gathered the Sea Change band to do it. Though nothing specifically had Beck or the guys down – no devastating break-up this time – at lot of time had passed and “at that point we’ve all had kids and married and divorced and lost parents and all these things.” I suppose everyone has their stuff, so to speak. Beck had been accumulating that stuff for 12 years. After playing the goofball for so long, it was time for him to release some of the pain.

Morning Phase is a giant exhale. To be fair, Beck is probably a little less depressed than he was on Sea Change and a little more philosophical about life. This time around you don’t get the sense that he’s in pain. You could almost say that Beck’s oeuvre is a bit bipolar, with Midnite Vultures representing the manic phase and Sea Change the depression. Calm can often be misread by outsiders as depression; Morning Phase is the calm of finding peace, not pain of a depressed young soul. He’s a man in his mid-40s who has been through a lot and come out the other end, and is ready to accept life for what it is, good and bad. At least that is what I hear.

With all that said, and keeping in mind that this is a beautiful record, I hope Beck’s next one is the companion to Midnite Vultures.

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Beck – Blue Moon

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