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Beck: Morning Phase [Album Review]

Words by Tim Onslow.

“There’s no frame around your picture. 

Just a view through my back door”

The hardest working ‘slacker’ in music reawakens with Morning Phase, an album artfully adrift in the acoustic-based desolation and eerily graceful melancholia he previously navigated in 2002’s Sea Change, this album’s lovelorn twin. Although it’s been 5 years since his last LP, Modern Guilt, Beck has hardly been idle in the extended interim. Notwithstanding an only recently-publicised serious spinal injury, we had the 20-song sheet-music publication of Song Reader, production work for characters like Thurston Moore and Stephen Malkmus, numerous other collaborations, stand-alone single releases and a live orchestral version of David Bowie‘s Sound and Vision.

Beck made his name in the mid-90’s with drop-out stoner anthems like ‘Loser’ and ‘Devil’s Haircut’, the huge success of Mellow Gold and Odelay vaunting him to pop-cultural prominence as the readymade incarnation (he’s still somehow as cherubically fresh-faced) of the preternaturally gifted drop-out, an alternative icon for the MTV generation. But the genre defying mash-up style and laconic lyricism that became his signature sound belied what he has since demonstrated to be an ultimately profound and enduring enchantment with blues, folk and country.

Morning Phase finds a home for some songs that have drifted for years, even directly harkening in their first discarded emergence back to the Sea Change sessions, and some originally intended for an ostensibly country album attempted in 2005, then reprised and recorded last year at Jack White‘s Third Man Records studios. As a stated ‘companion piece’ to Sea Change, we find ourselves once more in a dreaming soundscape built upon acoustic guitar, lush strings, echoing vocals and lyrics of undeniably sad beauty.

First single, ‘Blue Moon’, is an immediately stirring slice of gentle melancholy, a beautiful melody floating over words that speak of loneliness, bitterness and guilt (“So cut me down to size so I can fit inside/lies that will divide us both in time”). Many of the songs on this record actually feel like crystallised moments of a form of self-counselling, soft balms for a bare soul, highly personal instructions that are searching for rueful wisdom (‘Say Goodbye’, ‘Unforgiven’, ‘Don’t Let It Go’, ‘Turn Away’) amidst a deep sadness.

The folk element is given space to breath; Nick Drake vaguely haunts ‘Heart is a Drum’, Simon & Garfunkel lurk in the shades of ‘Turn Away’, and Dylan appears to inhabit the lyrical imagery of stand-out track, ‘Country Down’. ‘Blackbird Chain’ is a soft-focus country love song, while ‘Wave’ serves up a bleak and unsettling atmosphere, verses sang over nothing but solemn strings (“If I surrender/And I don’t fight this wave/No I won’t go under/I’ll only get carried away”) and an outro formed by the repeated chant of “isolation, isolation, isolation”.

With all the anti-folk lo-fi nihilism of One Foot in the Grave, the hick-hop slacker energy of Mellow Gold, the genius audio-collage cut-up classic that is Odelay, the psych-folk bossa-nova and country blues grab-bag of Mutations, the excursion into flirtatious funk and Prince-posing Midnite Vultures, the Latin-flavoured pop of Guero, the indie-rock of The Information and Modern GuiltBeck has clearly demonstrated that he’s not a man in love with the idea of being contained in one genre. From mariachi to metal, he’s proved himself a deft master in any stylistic direction that his muse invites him. That said, on each of the above albums in his long career, and especially pronounced with Sea Change, Beck has also shown himself to be fundamentally formed from a blues and folk aesthetic.

Morning Phase marks a graceful, if downbeat, reunion with his first love. For all the mercurial sonic adventurism, he seems most at home with little more instrumentation than an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a broken heart. There is yet another Beck album scheduled for release at some point later this year, said to be “completely different” to Morning Phase. We wouldn’t expect anything less.

Rating: ★★★★

Morning Phase by Beck is out now on iTunes, thanks to Capitol Records.

We’ll leave you with ‘Blue Moon’ | 

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