It’s hard to believe that this Beck is the same guy who burst on the scene with the catchy “Loser” (“I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) 20 years ago. Morning Phase is a mature, thoughtful album by a completely different guy.
Robin and I both have struggled a bit to come up with something to say about this album, except that it’s really good and we both enjoy it. It’s funny – almost everyone we mention it to hear’s something else that they really like in it. Robin hears old Elton John. I hear the powerfully surging vocals of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” – one of my favorite albums of all time. Robin ultimately just tells you to listen for yourself – which is great advice.
A friend last night described Beck as a “shape-shifter“, in the tradition of David Bowie and Neil Young. There’s some truth to that – Beck has changed his sound in major ways, but always comes out with interesting, well-worked music.
Unfortunately, that talent at drawing from different sources to produce something uniquely Beck makes him a target for some awful writing. I almost blew coffee through my nose when I read this sentence in the Rolling Stones’ review of the album – “Beck remains a master of pastiche, and trainspotters can have a field day mapping reference points: ‘Blue Moon’ shares a name with the Rodgers-Hart and Alex Chilton songs, but more closely resembles Bob Seger’s ‘Mainstreet’ getting abstracted by Brian Eno in a Laurel Canyon time share.”
If that’s the kind of crap that professionals write about this album, what chance do two middle-aged Kansas Citians have to capture its essence?
One of the interesting facets of this album are two brief instrumental pieces – “Cycle”, which serves as the first 40 seconds of the album and then bleeds into “Morning”, and “Phase”, which provides an aural breath of relaxation about 2/3 of the way through the album.
In the hands of 99% of musicians, these simple but beautiful pieces would have come across as gimmicky and overblown, but Beck makes them work. You know that you’re in the hands of a serious artist when you’re listening to Beck. Not a note is out of place – the sounds are pure and well-engineered. Even the buzzing guitar string on “Heart is a Drum” sounds like it belongs there – a personal reminder that there’s a human behind this slickly produced album.
It’s wonderful to hear this album. It’s absolutely serious, thoughtful music without being ponderous or self-indulgent. It’s polished, but there’s human emotion abounding in it. I liked “Loser” and “Two Turntables and a Microphone”, but this is way better. Beck is an artist, not just a clever musician.
Next up: Songwriter, by Kristie Stremel