No one expected Beck to return from a six-year absence from traditional recording (he did give us a Song Reader project among other things) with an album that reflected the time of inactivity. In fact, the word is that Beck has a number of albums ready to go. A single Beck album that reflected six years of work would be a monstrosity, that much creative energy too large to foster. No, Beck’s return could have been recorded in a single season, or even over a couple weeks of particularly reflective and melancholy solitude.
As promised by the singer, Morning Phase follows in the footsteps of the classic Sea Change, with Beck embracing heartache and emotional stakes, this time with the light at the end of the tunnel much brighter, much more road-worn. It’s a look that suits him. But, honestly, most of Beck’s incarnations have had their upsides.
Whether Beck has overwhelmed our senses of humor with his funkified Midnite Vultures or made us shine our belt buckles with the twang of Mutations, he is never hard to like, and it is strange that the general favorite is the sound that appears on Sea Change and now Morning Phase. Nothing thrills Beck fans more than seeing the usually wacky showman beaten and bruised. Maybe it makes sense when thought of as an innate aspect of the relationship between society and its stars. We love to see them fall from grace, and we love more to see them battle back from near-defeat.
Morning Phase is that comeback story, that emergence from the water and that first breath taken with the gusto of someone knowing they are truly alive. It is a beautiful record, and maybe a little over-simplified at its weakest moments, straddling that line between clean and bare. “Say Goodbye” stands smallest, an example of a non-idea played off as some kind of divine creative inspiration, when really it’s not too far from an Everlast song. But the line “these are the words we use to say goodbye” is still something i can’t quite grasp. Because, usually the words you say goodbye with are, well, “goodbye” and the rest of the song’s sorrowful lyrics don’t really illuminate wordplay as a strength of Beck’s romances: “I will wait/Take a turn/Sort it out/Let it burn/And empty out/An empty drawer/In my pockets/There’s nothing more” The words used to say goodbye are likely short and vague.
But mostly simplicity works in his favor. “Heart Is A Drum” rambles lightly over worn memories and warm nostalgia, Beck’s recording giving that “I’m being pulled through time and space” sensation. Coming early in the album, it keeps Morning Phase from wallowing, from becoming the wreck it wants to. Because songs like the lovely “Blue Moon,” which doesn’t disguise its central plea to not be left alone, and the Simon & Garfunkel-indebted album highlight “Turn Away” aren’t complicated in their emotional spectrum. They are sad; Beck is sad, and listening should probably make you sad, except when the sun shines in some hope.
Somehow there is a catharsis in sad music that allows us to empathize with the sentiments of the musician and get through our own unrelated bullshit. And we seek this out, so much so that one of the most unrelatable human beings alive, Beck—whose actual life we know little about, except that he is a Scientologist and his dad conducts the LA Phil—still causes our hearts to connect to his sadness and make it our own. Following other great albums this month from Sun Kil Moon and Angel Olsen, Morning Phase completes the holy trinity of gloom and makes surviving the year’s shortest month feel like a genuine accomplishment, with the looming terror of Beck’s “Wave” best capturing the mood that is left in the wake of such sad music. Morning Phase, though, menaces only briefly and mostly guides listeners through choppy waters, well-aware that a lifeboat and fresh clothes will be here in no time.