February 26, 2014

Test Spins: Beck, Morning Phase

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By SYDNEY RAMSDEN

Is Beck our generation’s Bob Dylan? Not only is he still going strong after more than 20 years of iconic music, but he’s also a seemingly different Beck with each record. We have the DIY misfit Mellow Gold Beck, the flamboyant funk-master Midnite Vultures Beck and the skilled composer Guero and The Information Beck. And those are only three of the countless yet distinctive personas he’s taken on with each musical outing. Yet he remains shrouded in mystery, a figure of mystique who wears his feelings on his guitar strap but still manages to surprise us after all these years.

On the surface, Morning Phase Beck is quite similar to the mopey Sea Change Beck. String arrangements, lush melodies and melancholy lyrics hark back to his career-defining breakup album, the 2002 equivalent to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Beck himself even called this album a “companion piece” to Sea Change, recruiting not just a similar sound but also much of the same personnel. Take opening track “Morning,” for example: it is so similar to Sea Change intro “The Golden Age,” down to the very first note, that one can’t help but equate the two albums upon first listen. Morning Phase is like catching up with an old friend we haven’t heard from in years, and though he was oh-so sad back then, he’s doing better now (but still plenty bummed out). This time around, the downtempo melodies are injected with a certain optimism that wasn’t there 12 years ago. Morning Phase lets us get reacquainted with that somber troubadour from years past, but now things are looking up on a record that finds Beck in top form.

Where Sea Change was full of doubt in despair, Morning Phase suggests acceptance of life’s misgivings and a willingness to persevere. As a whole, the record is a complete cycle of somberness; he starts moderately gloomy, sinks to his lowest point in the middle and rises from the ashes in the end. After lead single “Blue Moon,” the record gets quite dark with “Unforgiven” and “Wave,” the end of which has him chanting the words “wave” and “isolation.” He starts to get out of this slump on “Turn Away,” which casts away self-doubt and encourages you to “turn away from the weight of your own past.” The hopefulness that distinguishes Morning Phase from Sea Change culminates in the remarkable album ender “Waking Light,” which ends the record with positive words of wisdom: “When the memory leaves you, somewhere you can’t make it home, when the morning comes to meet you, open your eyes with waking light.”

If anything, Morning Phase is a showcase of Beck’s exquisite composing talent. Take lead single “Blue Moon,” for example; Beck’s velvety vocals, muffled percussion and elegant guitar arrangements elevate the track’s delicate melody. Also like Sea Change, he has employed his father David Campbell for this album’s gorgeous string arrangements on “Cycle, particularly, as well as the record’s darkest track, “Wave” and stunning album standout “Unforgiven.” Morning Phase also marks another indication of Beck’s underappreciated knack for injecting a country twang into poetic elegies. “Blackbird Chain” is an orchestra-infused country ballad while “Country Down” is a bluesy slow-jam complete with a harmonica solo. Will the next incarnation of Beck be a cowboy armed with his guitar and bleeding heart? Time will tell.

So who is Morning Phase Beck? We may not know for sure what’s plaguing him. But he’s grown over the course of his (far too long) five-year hiatus — no matter how dark his world is, he’s doing his best to see the light. At the end of the day, he’s really just being himself.

Morning Phase, as well as other music from this week’s Test Spins can be spun HERE:

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