Morning Phase, by Beck
On first listening to Beck’s placid, self-possessed 12th studio album, Morning Phase, I did not look him up on Wikipedia to see if he’d broken up with his wife. I was not fully functional: The record’s beauty approaches slowly, floats, surrounds and shuts off external awareness in the brain stem.
But I did look him up eventually — he hadn’t — and the reason was that it sounds like Sea Change, his 2002 album that was recorded after a breakup. On Morning Phase (Capitol), you hear slow tempos, reverb, acoustic guitar at the front, a string section playing consonant long tones, sprouts of steel guitar and banjo, modest and contained drumming. (Morning drumming, you could call it.) Phaser pedal effects wah-wah through some of the songs. Lyrics about universal aloneness drift in the broadest sense, for good or ill: “These are the words we use to say goodbye.” “Can we start it all over again?” “You don’t have to let it go away.” “The sound of your own voice/calling no one.” “I-so-la-tion.”
After you notice that it sounds somewhat like Sea Change, you may notice details that remind you of other people’s records — so many that you can start to think that Morning Phase has nothing at the center. How could a record so good have nothing at the center? Or, to turn the question around: How can something with so many borrowed parts achieve a distinct unity and even, if you like, a soul?
The string arrangements on Sea Change are by Beck’s father, David Campbell, who wrote string arrangements on similar tumbleweed-with-an-inner-life records in the 1970s: Jimmie Spheeris’s Isle of View; Valerie Carter’s Just a Stone’s Throw Away. Once you open that door, you have to open others, too.
Where do these songs come from, down to the mix, the chord changes, the dynamics? Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, a morning record if there ever was one? David Crosby’s Laughing? The Rolling Stones’ Moonlight Mile? Nick Drake’s album Bryter Later (for its morning drumming by Dave Mattacks, and its string arrangements by Robert Kirby)? Bjork’s Joga (for the idea of a pop ballad sung as a romantic dirge, as is this album’s Wave, over a short cycle of orchestral chords in a minor key)?
Other elements on Morning Phase are not so much traceable to particular sources — though you might swear they are — as they are just useful ingredients: major-to minor transitions, contrary motion in vocal harmonies, metrical changes between three-beat and four-beat patterns, open guitar tunings.
But let’s get back to slow tempos and reverb. Time and space. That’s where Morning Phase really succeeds, beyond the material itself, such that Beck could be writing two-chord drones, or just writing his own lyrics to other people’s compositions. These aren’t great songs, if great means original, or complex, or ready to be reinterpreted. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that these songs are a crucial and unfashionable half-turn slower than they need to be, and stay that way. The rhythm section fills them out, and Beck finds a way to sing in them, draping his groggy lead voice over the words, echoing up the vocal harmonies for backgrounds and choruses. He’s found the right sound for his disposition and, he resonates like crazy with that sound. It’s as if he’s found a way to sit right in the saddle, and the horse takes care of itself.