Morning Phase

25 March 2014 Music

Morning Phase


In the years following Modern Guilt (2008), Beck Hansen delighted in dodging the expected, stepping off the album/promotion/tour carousel with a host of art projects and experiments. He issued an ‘album’ as sheet music, produced a Charlotte Gainsbourg record and covered LPs by Skip Spence, INXS and even Yanni in their entirety. Through those years, Beck kept rolling tape on new material, but resisted doing anything so quotidian as making albums, instead squirreling out songs on soundtracks for teen vampire movies and video games. Now we find this dallying coming to an end, with Beck set to release two albums this year.

The first Beck record in six years should be an event, but instead it’s an anticlimax. Morning Phase is billed as a ‘companion’ album to Sea Change (2002), and therein lies the problem. Written when reeling from a breakup with his fiancée, Sea Change was hailed by some as the moment when the ‘Loser’ grew up, but there was a whiff of insincere opportunism to the album. Just as Beck had worn the guises of pre-war bluesman (on One Foot in the Grave in 1994) and apprentice Beastie Boy (on Odelay in 1996) sensitive balladeer felt, at times, like just another outfit to model.

Morning Phase marks Beck’s second album-long study of sad, serious, mid-tempo, 1970s singer-songwriter balladry. Where Sea Change could at least peddle the myth of a singular heartbreak, the genesis of its sister set is more diffuse. Some of Morning Phase’s tunes were first recorded as far back as 2005, but were kept aside because they didn’t fit with the digital-era anxieties of the robotic The Information (2006) nor the retro-toned good times of Modern Guilt. Rather than representing a period of time, the songs gathered for Morning Phase represent a consistency of tone (mopey), delivery (hangdog), pace (slow) and sound (tastefully orchestral).

The result is a record of generic-sounding sadness, in which a restless artist achieves stasis. There are individual instances of interesting ideas: ‘Turn Away’ echoes the hushed harmonies and clean fingerpicking of early Simon and Garfunkel; ‘Wave’ is epic and minimal, recalling glacial Scottish art-rockers The Blue Nile; closing track ‘Waking Light’ is an unabashed lighters-in-the-air power-ballad. But collectively the songs gather with an air of artistic inertia. Beck turns to his own back catalogue for inspiration, and sounds uninspired in the process. For an artist whose many projects show a manic mind, Beck should never have made a record this determinedly boring.

Anthony Carew