On his remarkable 2002 album, Sea Change, Beck ditched his signature irony, break beats and jump cuts to vibe on the country-tinged singer-songwriter tradition of his L.A. hometown. Since then, the album’s stature has only grown – even as Beck left his fringed-suede jacket tucked away in a closet. He has finally put it back on for Morning Phase, which features many of the same players and themes as Sea Change. The result is a set that feels like an instant folk-rock classic.
The paired openers here, “Cycle” and “Morning,” set the tone. The first is a daybreak-conjuring string overture, conducted by Beck’s father, David Campbell, which introduces the LP’s musical themes. The second is a great early-hours song in the tradition of the Velvet Underground’s kindred album opener “Sunday Morning.” Around bright acoustic guitar and chiming percussion, ripples of reverb and synthesizers blur Beck’s layered vocals and Stanley Clarke’s acoustic bass into a gorgeous watercolor-hangover haze. It echoes a lot of what Beck’s been up to lately – the lean formalism of his sheet-music Song Reader, the psychedelia of 2008’s Modern Guilt, the crate-digging of his online Record Club covers project, and the orchestral experiments of Rework, his Philip Glass collaboration.
At its core, Morning Phase is a record about what to do when the world seems totally fucked. Irony doesn’t cut it anymore; truth, beauty and resolve are the best weapons. “Looked up this morning/Saw the roses full of thorns/Mountains are falling,” Beck croons with falsetto swoops on “Morning,” then asks, “Can we start it all over again?” He could be referring to a crashed relationship, or a trashed ecosystem. On “Heart Is a Drum,” which radiates the cocooned warmth of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, he asks, “Why does it hurt this way?/To come so far to find they’ve closed the gates.” Coming in the wake of a back injury so severe Beck couldn’t pick up a guitar for a number of years, Morning Phase’s struggle toward the light feels as personal as it does universal.
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. The strings from “Cycle” resurface in “Wave,” a lovely voice-and-orchestra meditation that could almost be a Björk cover. On “Country Down,” reminiscent of Harvest-era Neil Young, he sings about a man in a lifeboat while Greg Leisz’s pedal steel draws chem trails across the sky.
The album ends with another aching morning song, “Waking Light.” But the line that persists comes a few tracks earlier, on “Don’t Let It Go.” “In the crossfire, there’s a story,” Beck offers, “how it ends, we do not know.” With lyrical nods to Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and the crossfi rehurricane birth in the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the song is in effect about how musical storytelling helps us push through terrible times. Morning Phase aspires to no less.