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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Beck: Morning Phase


1) Cycle; 2) Morning; 3) Heart Is A Drum; 4) Say Goodbye; 5) Blue Moon; 6) Unforgiven; 7) Wave; 8) Don't Let It Go; 9) Blackbird Chain; 10) Phase; 11) Turn Away; 12) Country Down; 13) Waking Light.

A pox upon this whole goddamn «sequel» idea. Time and time again, artists keep falling into this ridiculous temptation — «hey, that masterpiece of mine was so great, I wonder if I can do ano­ther one just like it?» — and it's not even necessarily for the money. No, more likely it is because you happen to run out of ideas, and start looking for inspiration in your own past, sort of an incestu­ous affair with your own body and soul. What good can come out of it? Was there ever a self-con­scious musical «sequel» (excluding multi-volume issues that were initially planned as such) that managed to equal, let alone surpass, the original?

It took Beck more than five years to give us Morning Phase, and when he did, he advertised it as a «companion piece» to Sea Change. But that album needs no companion piece. It is an album about loneliness, for Christ's sake; how can an album about loneliness require a «companion»? And even though Beck's previous records showed some signs of stagnation, not a single one was directly billed as, or emotionally felt like a straightforward attempt to repeat the moods, textures, and effects of any of its predecessors. So is this a confession that Beck is finally spent, and that from now on he will be specializing in inferior re-writes of his past glories?

And here are the general reasons why you could suspect inferiority even before putting on the album. First, remember that Sea Change was actually written and recorded under the shadow of internal struggle and strife — an authentic «breakup album» where the songs were fueled by real feelings. That dark fire may have been artificially fed up, but its basis was real, and you could feel it. Fast forward twelve years, though, and the only internal struggle and strife that we see is from an artist who used to be on the edge of musical progress, and now feels himself somewhat left out, without a proper understanding of how he could be in the lead once again — mixed-up and confused. That could be an emotional basis for something, but why confuse it with the «dis­illusioned recluse» image of Sea Change, then?

Second, for some reason, Beck decided that the album would be self-produced — even though, last time I checked, Nigel Godrich was still alive and well, and even more, this was his regular turn in the «every second album» cycle. Beck did get some of the Sea Change musicians to play on the record, and, once again, entrusted the orchestration business to his father, but Godrich was absolutely crucial to the sound of Sea Change, dressing those songs up in ways that Beck's mind could never have come up with — and yes, he is very sorely missed on Morning Phase, which feels stripped and underworked without the Godrich touch.

Now here is the first revelation when you actually put the album on: it shares a lot of things in common with Sea Change, but in general, it feels nothing like Sea Change. The first and pro­bably best song, ʽMorningʼ, does not strike you with a bleak, secluded view of the world that ʽGolden Ageʼ proclaimed so solemnly. Its lyrical message is completely different: "Can we start it all over again? / This morning / I've lost all my defences / This morning / Won't you show me the way it used to be? / I've gone all around / 'Til there's nothing left to say / We've worn it all down / Into something that couldn't be said". Yes, you could try and interpret it as part of a dialog with a relationship partner, but in this whole context, wouldn't you say that it's basically a song about, er, uhm... impotence? Spiritual, I mean, of course.

A thin whiff of melancholy emanates from the song, but no desperation — Beck is being tender (falsetto in the verses) and submissive (chorus), not particularly happy, but generally coming to terms with his lot, «letting down his defences» indeed. There might even be some sort of early pre-nir­vana calm contained in the tune, what with its angelic harmonies and soothing piano chords bringing on a bit of a «New Age flavor», musically. This will be a serious blow for people who expect strong emotions or body-bending impulses from the man all the time, but if you are prepared to give the man a chance, ʽMorningʼ, as an anthem of calming down, humility and sub­mission, actually has a real point to make.

The bad news is that most of the following songs struggle to make a real point — or, more pre­cisely, they do not struggle to make a real point. ʽHeart Is A Drumʼ picks up the tempo a little bit to become a simple, unassuming folk-pop ditty whose hushed vocals, obscure lyrics, and ghostly background vocals presume a dig at «depth», but I do not sense any real depth — just a guy mur­muring some barely coherent nonsense to the mellow sound of acoustic guitars and pianos. No hooks to speak of, no musical textures to be astounded at, and what is it exactly that you are trying to get across to me, Mr. Hansen? What I see is just some grayish ambience, as if you wanted to capture some light and some darkness in the same bottle and give me both, but then you accidentally shook 'em up, and now it's sort of undrinkable. No taste.

This is pretty much the same reaction I get from everything else: a total feel of «middle of the road» where you really keep wishing he'd stuck to this side or that. On ʽBlue Moonʼ, the first single from the album, he sings that "I'm so tired of being alone", but there is no musical indi­cation in the song that he is alone, and if he is tired, it is more like he is tired of finding great ideas for songs rather than anything else. And song after song, we get the same unmemorable acoustic patterns, the same walls covered by simplistic synthesized or orchestral carpeting, the same mock-transcendental «woo-hoos» and «aaa-haas» from the backup singers, and, guess what, not even a single example of great usage of the bass guitar (dark bass grooves were an integral part of Sea Change, but not here).

Oh, it all sounds suitably nice, and it may even all sound suitably adequate to Beck's current state of mind, but it makes me sad and disappointed to see him in this state of mind. Even when he opts for a «grand» closure (ʽWaking Lightʼ), the crescendo effects seem boring and predictable, and, most importantly, devoid of real tension and energy — and this is the first Beck album in my experience where, after three listens in a row, I was unable to memorize any of the songs (with ʽMorningʼ as the only exception, and even that mainly because I really love that use of falsetto on the verses). Is it the kind of album that could be expected to subtly grow on you after a miriad of listens? But we are not living in an epoch where one would have time for that. And even if we were, this is Beck Hansen we are talking about, the guy who used to be the fastest gunslinger in the West. Sure, even the fastest gunslingers eventually grow old, but I was sort of unprepared that the aging process would be so quick.

If we judge the record on its own merits, removed from any possible context, it is inoffensive and generally pretty. But as a part of the curve, it is a catastrophe — a pretentious statement about having nothing to say that comes from a washed-up artist who really has nothing left to say, and knows not how to say it properly. Okay, «washed-up» is a harsh and undeserved word; maybe it is just a temporary blunder, and no sooner than Beck renounces this stupid idea of a «sequel» and starts bringing back in his usual batch of wonder producers, he may be able to get back on the right track. But the signs are not at all auspicious — when an album is as empty of meaning and feeling as Morning Phase seems to be, one can't help fearing that this particular thumbs down, the first one I've ever had the mispleasure of giving Beck, will be far from the last.

Check "Morning Phase" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Morning Phase" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. As soon as I saw the cover, I knew this one was going to hurt. Bat Out of Hell II (or III) anyone?

    Okay, it's probably not as bad as that but...yeah. No thanks Beck!

  2. Wow. I am perplexed at your reaction to this album, George! I can't believe someone who can appreciate the melodic talents of Beck through the years would so hastily discard Morning Phase, which is chock-a-block with great moods and textures, even if those moods and textures aren't as filled with despair as Sea Change. So what if it's billed as a "sequel"? That's marketing and nothing more. You really think these songs are inferior to, say, the by-the-books blues ditties on the second half of Mutations?

    Your complaint that most of the songs do not make a "point" is misguided; this is an album about living in a monogamous relationship. Every song, start to finish, reveals some facet of Beck's perspective on married life, some lyrics more overt about it than others. I found the juxtaposition between the total surrender to misery at losing love in Sea Change and the surprise that finding new love has created a different kind of misery on Morning Phase quite fascinating. The same melancholy that pervaded Sea Change cannot by definition be present on Morning Phase; it's a whole other shade of gray.

    As you can probably tell, this album clicked with me immediately. And no one can make someone else like a song. But I really am surprised you reacted so negatively to this album. While at times it feels like Beck's most "conventional" album, I still feel a fan of Beck's quieter numbers will enjoy the hell out of it.

  3. Also, I thought for sure you were going to note the uncanny resemblance of "Turn Away" to '60s-era Moody Blues (specifically John Lodge).

  4. "Is it the kind of album that could be expected to subtly grow on you after a myriad of listens?"

    Yes, yes it is actually.

    "But we are not living in an epoch where one would have time for that".

    Well existence moves at the rate you choose to live it.

    This is by no means a perfect album - far from it. I felt a little underwhelmed upon first listening to it but found myself returning repeatedly until something unlocked and the album's cohesive charms became increasingly apparent. Subtle and slight, but charming nonetheless.

    But hell, taste is taste.

    The disappointment is that the review has the whiff of someone having made up their mind before even listening to the album and regrettably has the bombastic nature of contemporary polarising criticism - "oh I don't like it, so I must hate it".

    1. No, I never make up my mind before listening to an album. First time I catch myself doing that, I'm closing up the site.
      I don't hate the album - it sounds nice.
      And with a little effort, every single album on Earth may be made to exude a cohesive charm after a while.

  5. brilliant review as always, george. i skipped the last becks but got this one on the strength of a (very positive) new yorker piece. and i can't help but echo your thoughts: "morning" is nice, but the album never builds on it. it's a shockingly textureless, emotionless, featureless record from a guy who was once the king of bells and whistles. the effusive response to it from critics proves, once again, that if your record is slow, acoustic, humorless, and serious, there's a far better chance of it being "art" than if its fast, colorful, funny, and seriously fun (like the still underrated "midnite vultures"). thanks, george!

  6. Well, "harsh and undeserved" characterizes this review, for me -- a surprise, because I so rarely disagree with your "thumbs down" verdicts and appreciate that you don't seem to give them lightly, George. I hear more meaning in the album than you do, that's for sure.
    I also have to disagree that "every single album on Earth may be made to exude a cohesive charm after a while." Unless generous uptake of mood-altering substances are involved, that is.

  7. It's the first negative review that I am reading for this album! I was starting to feel like a black sheep because I couldn't really like it (I am not usually a huge fan of Beck, but I liked many of his previous albums)... and now your review says exactly what I have been thinking about it from the first listen. Well done: once again you are a very reliable reviewer! (eagerly waiting the day when you'll start to review Depeche Mode, although I miss your 10/15 rating scale).