Music Reviews
Morning Phase

Beck Morning Phase

(Columbia) Rating - 8/10

One of the principle steps to mend a broken heart is to write the story about your relationship. Beck Hansen opened himself to this type of self-nourishment with the release of Sea Change in 2002, resulting in the slow and mellow maturation of a once scatterbrained artist who couldn’t set limits to his restless creativity. Beck did make his name known for his out-of-the-way antics, so to hear him recite direct, sentimental thoughts brought a profound clash of opinion about what his true disposition as an artist should be. But as the years have passed, Sea Change has become one of his most respected efforts precisely because of how distinctively plaintive it sounds to the rest of his elliptical oeuvre. It’s always hard to accept that the class clown does have feelings hiding behind the facade, so to see the funniest in the class become such a sad wreck can be amusing at first, but ultimately worrying. 

Except that the story behind Sea Change came from a very sincere place, each exposed strand of hurt laid bare for the world to see. It wasn’t just inspired by the breakup of his longtime girlfriend at the time - that sparse and melancholy set consumed every spare second of his thoughts, even when the delivery was occasionally banal instead of poignant. Since then, Hansen got married and is now the father of two children. So when reports came that he had an interest in revisiting the placid, West Coast-dappled MOR of Sea Change, the initial reaction to that decision came with callous prejudgment, as if he couldn’t possibly write a sad record because he’s part of a wholesome family nucleus. 

It’s true that Hansen’s role as a stable father significantly reduces the amount of empathy one may have for him in his latest offering, Morning Phase. There’s nothing more contemptible than tolerating an artist who takes the liberty of describing his fabricated woes in pursuit of romanticizing despondency. Writing a sad record can be big business, after all. But all of Hansen’s projects leading up to Phase have indicated that he’s far from hitting his nadir, like the shape-shifting cosmic funk of I Won’t Be Long, an engrossing number that surprises with each new twist. Which makes such a muted return all the more perplexing - the Beck we find in Morning Phase depicts a weary soul resting in a hammock as he explores his transcendental spiritual existence, rather than the sprightly blue-eyed cockatoo that was starting to find his groove again after an almost-defeating spinal injury. 

The wondrous sonic beauty of Morning Phase sheds light into Hansen’s otherwise absence of presence, so when the swelling, cinematic strings of Cycle open the record, it’s as if we’re surrounded by an omnipotent being coming down from the heavens. Even though the character he portrays is flawed and human - "I’ve lost all my defenses/won’t you show me the way it used to be?", letting his guard down in Morning, moving at an unhurried pace as its carefully timed glockenspiel hits add a forlorn tone to his gently-accented billowy vocals. There’s no palpable sense of loss, Hansen himself avoiding a subjective tone in Say Goodbye with the prudence of an elderly sage. Conveniently rhymed proverbs are found throughout without a thread of continuity ("only what you feel/keeps you standing still", "lies that we divide/all lies in time", "what’s the use of being found?/you can lose yourself in some good ground ”, serving as graceful, yet forgettable pearls of wisdom as opposed to the daring forthrightness of Sea Change.

Meaning that the insouciant nature of Morning Phase’s lyrical content almost works on a different plane, and it can easily be unhitched without second guessing how it affects its overall cohesion. All of which shouldn’t discredit the lavish production it offers; and how mesmerizing it sounds! With a true audiophile’s ear, every single element in the album is detailed with utmost crispness - from the deft use of descending guitars in Say Goodbye and the tight and punchy rhythm section that makes up Heart is a Drum to the dramatic string section found in Wave, there’s absolutely no trace of imperfection or false note struck. These are coasting ballads that shimmer with the burning glow of a rising California sun, peppered with all sorts of accouterments - like otherworldly phaser effects, twinkling chord progressions and echoed vocals - that allow it to sound ravishing and delicate all at once. Hansen has never closed a record so perfectly as he does with Waking Light, which starts as a piano-tinkling ballad before it gradually intensifies into a goosebump-inducing crescendo of a finish. And every moment of luscious release is earned.

There’s a reason why Hansen decided to revisit the stately sway of Sea Change, though obscuring its purpose may be his way of accepting that there’s no way of ever surpassing its original source with the same clout. Featuring the same session players present in the aforementioned, there will naturally be some parallels in the instrumentation, even if deliberately repeating some of its finer points occasionally make it sound like a facsimile of its counterpart. In the grand scheme of things, Morning Phase does mean something - that stillness and reflection is the path to attaining stronger emotional stability. Much has been said about who the real Hansen is, and who he should and shouldn’t be, and this is his way of challenging the perception that only truthful experiences offer more “significant” music. Besides, this is just another phase in an ever-changing career that hasn’t reached its end point.