Perfect Sound Forever


The Desert Voyeur
by Owen Watson
(April 2014)

Beck's new album tells us he's still on the outside looking in, and maybe that's not a bad thing.

Greeting the recent release of Beck's new album Morning Phase are rumblings that this is the 43 year old's sequel to his similarly tuned 2002 album Sea Change: another reverb-soaked record heavy with lament and airy symphonic composition. The comparison is for a good reason, as he brought back the same cast of backing musicians he used on that album. However, while we can accept those sequel musings based on the overall character of the album and the musicians involved (as well as a surefire way for the record company to piggyback on the success of one of his most popular releases), a close inspection finds the sequel tag to be a reductionist way of looking at the work. Morning Phase may be seen as a follow up due to its pedigree and the fact that Beck has done little to dispel that readily soundbyted storyline, but there is a feeling of importance to this offering - a distinctive headiness and depth that bears itself out through repeated listening. With this album, Beck has encapsulated the mature, aged ex-rocker he's become while further cementing himself in the singer/songwriter genre he has chosen as his calling. Some have interpreted the title as Mourning Phase (critics seem to associate a slow album with a sad album), but it should be taken as literally it sounds: as the start of a new chapter. This is Beck at middle age, with all of its safety and potential trappings.

Looking at the full catalog of Beck's work, a well-worn duality has seen him see-saw from two distinct styles: an almost straight ahead singer-songwriter track, and a highly produced, semi-ironic, hip-hop/funk influenced track. As Grantland's Steven Hyden points out, Beck fans normally fall into one of these two camps, claiming the "real" Beck belongs to their chosen auditory sensibility. Sometimes I would like nothing more than to have witnessed Beck on the funk masterpiece Midnite Vultures tour with full brass-backing band and a belting falsetto, but Morning Phase takes another step in the direction Beck has been trending, further placing him on the quieter side of the spectrum. This, by all accounts, presages where he figures to remain moving forward. It is natural for a veteran musician approaching middle age to turn to more reflective musical climes, as marriage, children, and a storied career set in. Then again, this is Beck, so no one really knows - his next album could be 15 Donna Summer covers.

An interesting issue has arisen due to this varied history of work. Though no one can doubt the beauty of some of Beck's slower paced work, he is handcuffed in the pursuit of a certain emotional legitimacy due to the dominant irony of a lot of his previous music. The avid (as well as the neutral well-informed) Beck listener will always have skepticism wrought by the irreverent Odelay, Midnite Vultures, and 2006's The Information. Never in doubt are Beck's singer-songwriter credentials or talent, but there has always been an emotional distance between Beck and his music that has put the onus on the listener to evoke feeling from this paradox of musical background and a lyrical presentation that can be more beige and bleached than richly colored.

Examining “Guess I'm Doing Fine,” one of the stand-out tracks on Sea Change, we see this distance from his lyrics during the bridge: "Press my face up to the window/See how warm it is inside/See the things that I've been missing/Missing all this time." Beck is an outsider of love in the musical world; someone who sees, describes, but can't connect with love through his music. Critics of this idea will point to the beauty of his compositions and instrumentation, but the truth is that Beck's singer-songwriter albums are desert soundscapes: sparse, rain-shadowed and barren. They exist in a nostalgic version of Americana that yearns for a moonlit and road-tripped reflection, not a messy and personal interaction with heartache. His is an ancient and worn out hurt; an almost forgotten photograph of an old love dug up from the bottom of a lost shoebox.

The contents of that shoebox emerge in the subtle and not-so-subtle homages Beck has interlaced into his compositions on Morning Phase:

"Heart Is a Drum" could double as a Nick Drake cut from Pink Moon with the bass string-heavy use of open tunings and cascading rhythms; "Wave" is an expansive, somber, chamber music track; "Turn Away" is an airy and exquisitely layered example of mid-to-late 1960's songwriting (think Simon & Garfunkel, or early Crosby, Stills, & Nash) with Michael Hedges-esque angular guitar work; and "Country Down" is for those looking for the classic acoustic Beck treatment - a lonesome highway ballad completed by a Dylan-channeling harmonica.

At times, Morning Phase can feel like a structured interpretation of a concept album. It has a creative breadth, with experimental harmonic melodies rising to precarious crescendos and a vast difference in sounds from track to track. For that reason, it is not a record for everyone. The fans that lean toward the Odelay/Midnite Vultures end of the Beck spectrum will lament the dearth of poppy, uptempo numbers, and most people, regardless of whether they enjoy this side of Beck or not, will think the album sad to its core. They're not entirely correct, but it's hard to completely quash that notion when "Wave" ends with Beck chanting the word 'isolation' over and over again. Still, the "sad" tag is much like the "sequel to Sea Change" generalization - reductionist and surface level.

Beck does nothing on this album to discredit the theory that he is the bluebird outside the window looking in on a happy home. He remains a love voyeur in a genre filled to a spilling brim with brokenhearted lovers. There is nothing wrong with that; it is the very thing that makes his music unique and set apart from the often ho-hum, saturated sentimentality of his fellow singer-songwriters. We should, however, realize that Beck isn't producing any salve to the affliction of the heart-sick; he is instead pointing at old scars and wondering aloud whether the wounds that produced them were worth it. This is no longer the playful twenty-something amalgam of Odelay or the freshly heartbroken Beck of Sea Change. Morning Phase reflects a veteran of album-making in its lush arrangements and sure handed structure, even if the now suburban and middle-aged wonderings don't shine as bright as subjects past.

This isn't Beck's Mourning Phase; it's the undercurrents of his new life brought to the surface. After a five year break from his last release, this is the essence of Beck laid bare, with all of his quirks and brilliance. He remains a keen conduit of the outsider figure, and instead of calling that sad, let's identify what it truly is: the artist, the sometimes gaucho, the desert soundscape voyeur.

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