, March 3rd, 2014 12:17
I always hesitate to use the phrase 'return to form', because I worry it leaves those who enjoyed the supposed fallow period feeling like weirdos, sat in the dark rocking back and forth while R.E.M.s Up plays on a continuous loop. The "had it, lost it, got it back" narrative is always a fun one to write, but in Beck's case, I'd argue that he never really lost it in the first place. Since 2002, we've had the playful mania of Guero, the brash, abrasive, paranoiac The Information and, with 2008's terse, outstandingly tight Modern Guilt, a synthesis of early Beck's bold experimentalism with Sea Change's emotional heft.
So, after a decade spent darting all over the place, and on the heels of the brilliant but misleading 'Defriended', an album billed as a direct companion piece to Sea Change does seem a little jarring. Listening to the unashamedly straightforward, acoustic guitar-dominated Morning Phase, it can feel as though the 2000s simply didn't happen. Try playing second track 'Morning' back to back with Sea Change's opener 'The Golden Age', for instance, and you're struck by how snugly the two slot together. It's as though Beck popped out of studio for a walk, got lost for twelve years, and then returned one sunny day to finish the job.
I stress sunny day there, because, unlike Sea Change's emotional trauma, there's a carefree breeziness to much of Morning Phase, a spring to the other record's winter, and if you fell hard for Sea Change, there's undoubted pleasure in watching the artist use the same palette to paint a more hopeful picture. The arrangements are lush, languorous, the record caked in reverb and daubed with swells of dreamy strings.
There's an emphasis on burned-out Americana, and on simple analogue purity: 'Say Goodbye' picks up some Harvest-era Neil Young swagger and meanders towards a cute banjo solo and a dreamy fade out, while 'Wave', solely strings and voice, sells Hansen's voice as a commanding instrument in its own right. Likewise, 'Turn Away' boasts gorgeous, multi-tracked falsetto and gentle Five Leaves Left picking, acting as a mirror to the gut-wrenching 'Already Dead' from the earlier LP.
In his recent Quietus interview, Beck said that Morning Phase involved trying to "give you the feeling, rather than tell you what to think", adding that he'd be happy for someone to hear the record and say "Oh, these are some nice songs". These are unmistakably some really nice songs.
So it's hard to say why I've found it a struggle to properly warm to them. The record is accomplished, admirable, in many places outright beautiful. But Beck normally seems gloriously out of step and I guess, right now, plaintive acoustic strums and pretty harmonies are everywhere. Perhaps that's the trouble with an artist as polymorphous as Beck, one with so many faces and so many talents: one man's return to form will always be another's treading water. I was hoping for a leap forward, but Morning Phase just feels like a very pretty place to sit and wait for one.