When Beck came out with Sea Change in 2002, I was more than a little surprised. First of all, its sound was a drastic shift away from the snappin’ funk of Midnite Vultures. Oh sure, maybe it was telegraphed just a little bit by Mutations, but that didn’t really mute the shock of its arrival. But what surprised me even more was the fact that I didn’t like it very much…at least not right away.
The problem for me was that Beck’s lament, driven by the dissolution of a relationship, just didn’t resonate with me. That I’d been through a similar experience not too many years previous to this didn’t seem to matter. I chalked it up as “mopey guy-rock.”
All of these years later, lots of folks are speaking of Morning Phase as the supposed sequel to Sea Change. It’s an easy conclusion to arrive at if you give the new record a cursory listen. On the surface, there are a lot of sonic elements in common; the slow tempos, the chiming accents, the strings. But what sets Morning Phase apart from Sea Change is a huge expansion of the emotional palette. There’s not just grief, but hope as well.
After the opening string wash of “Cycle” — something of a musical sunrise — there’s “Morning,” which leavens the obvious heartbreak with a chorus “Can we start it all again?/This morning” that blooms vocally like a cross between Brian Wilson and The Flaming Lips. Other songs lean in that same direction, “Blue Moon” and “Turn Away” in particular. The heavily layered vocals and strings work together to create environments that sound at once new and ancient.
There are two sides to this record that Beck manages to weave together, making them co-exist effortlessly. There are the country elements on display on such tunes as “Country Down,” “Don’t Let It Go” (whose acoustic guitar work brings Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning” to mind), and country-meets-R.E.M. “Blackbird Chain.” Alongside this are the more gauzy tracks: the closing “Waking Light” with its soaring chorus, the aforementioned “Morning,” and especially “Wave.”
Wave feels like the emotional centerpiece of the album. There’s no band, just Beck’s voice floating over an endless ocean of strings. “If I surrender/And I don’t fight this wave/I won’t go under/I’ll only be carried away.” What sounds like a person resigned to their fate turns slightly darker during the playout with “Wave/Wave/Isolation/Isolation/Isolation.” And yet the music moves toward the sky, giving a strange sense of uplift.
Just like all of us, the years that have passed have greatly influenced Beck. When Sea Change was released we saw that, in some ways, he’d grown beyond two turntables and a microphone. With “Morning Phase” Beck lets on that he’s found new musical paths to help him make his way. Clearly I have too, because (unlike my early Sea Change experience) Morning Phase has made itself a home on my favorite records list for 2014.
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