Being a fan of Beck can be an emotionally exhausting experience. The variety in his style, although arguably one of the most enjoyable parts of surfing through his discography, also renders the interim between releases all the more suspenseful. Learning that his first “album” in four years after Modern Guilt would be released as a physical songbook was beyond frustrating. It reeked of the eye-roll-eliciting publicity stunts that jaded listeners of contemporary music have come to dread, such as the Flaming Lips’ release of a 24-hour track in a human skull or the Wu Tang Clan’s recent announcement that only one copy of their upcoming album will be made available for sale.
But to place Beck into that category, to imply that he places precedence on commercial gimmicks over substance, is to fundamentally mischaracterize Beck. Morning Phase, his most recent album, released on February 21, has drawn considerable comparison to 2002’s Sea Change, notable in its shift to far more stripped-down, emotionally raw musical and lyrical styles. It’s for the most part an apt comparison. Part of the quirky appeal to much of Beck’s discography has been the esoteric but never overly serious quality of his songs, but both Sea Change and now Morning Phase provide gorgeous, effusive breaths of fresh air from that norm. And Morning Phase is in itself an evolution; although its stand-out track, “Blue Moon,” begins with the lamentation “I’m so tired of being alone,” the album overall feels less cloying and saccharine than Sea Change does. Its pathos derives more from the removed but reverent awe the listener feels for the epic, emotional journey Beck lyricizes, rather than from a more pitiable sense of sympathy for the vocalist.
Morning Phase begins with “Cycle,” a short, instrumental track that instills in the listener a tentative feeling before opening up with “Morning,” a slow, crooning piece that with its sleepy pace seems an appropriate soundtrack for the last leg of a long journey. Album highlights include “Heart is a Drum,” with juxtaposition of self-effacing melancholy and musical warmth that is emblematic of the great complexity of the album. The aforementioned “Blue Moon” is more upbeat, with a distinctive banjo twang and beautiful vocal swells that have landed it first place among all tracks released this year in my library’s play-count.
The second half of the album drags on more than the first. It suffers from one of the rare but nagging problems shared with Sea Change: many of the tracks melt together stylistically in a way that leaves them indiscernible from one another. The design seems intentional; “Wave” and “Phase” are both emotive but mildly tedious songs whose chief purpose seems to be segueing their preceding tracks with those following them. For the more patient listener, I’m sure there’s some elusive brilliance about them to which I am deaf, but I’m a more enthusiastic fan of the final three tracks (“Waking Light” in particular), which are considerably more dynamic and distinctive from one another.
Regardless of Beck’s tendency to bounce between radically different musical styles, Morning Phase serves as a welcome return to the sincere, emotional power of Sea Change as well as a clear indication of the growth that Beck has undergone as an artist. Was it worth the nearly six-year wait since Modern Guilt? It’s a hard question to answer. What is clear, however, is that Beck has done a lot of thinking since 2008 – Morning Phase is at once contemplative without being pretentious, emotional without being mopey, insightful without being didactic. It’s a gorgeous album that warrants the praise it’s received. Let’s just hope that we don’t have to wait six more years for his next one.