What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – Beck – Morning Phase

My first experience of Bek David Campbell aka Beck Hansen aka Beck was 1999’s Midnight Vultures. What was this baffling funk beast? Was this man taking the piss out of me? Or taking the piss out everyone apart from me?

With tracks like Sexx Laws, (pretty much a stream of consciousness from an unlikely sex slave) and Hollywood Freaks (opening line “mmm hot milk, tweak my nipples, my sales go triple”) It was arguably a tough album to love, however, whatever my 14 year old mind heard on this most bonkers of albums it’s liked. Midnight Vultures initially garnered largely positive reviews from the media, however Q Magazine went on to prove just how irrelevant and dull they’d become seven years later when they voted it the 50th Worst Album Ever. With it’s propulsive Prince inspired funk and tongue in cheek take on celebrity culture it wasn’t exactly a classic Beck album, but what it was in reality was a brilliantly fun record, it was designed to be fun. Beck himself admitted as much, growing tired of life on the road, he wrote this album to have a good time, all the time.

Whilst I doubt it was a direct influence on the likes of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry put their slick vocal stylings over it instead of Beck’s awkward white guy rap and you’d probably have made the most successful pop record of all time. It would be pretty awful, but it’d sell by the bucketload.

What I of course had missed when I stumbled over 1999 Beck, was probably his most acclaimed album of all, Odelay. I would later go on to discover it’s charms, the cut and paste, blending of blues, folk, rap, country and pretty much anything else Hansen could lay his hands on set him apart from the crowd and formed the basis for so many failed investments from record companies trying to find another artist like Beck. From Tom Vek to Simple Kid labels threw money at anyone they thought could match the brilliance, nobody came close.

He’s arguably the greatest chameleon music has ever seen, flipping seamlessly from the slacker pop of Loser, to the mellow heartbreaking folk of 2002’s Sea Change and then back to the lo-fi Gameboy inspired brilliance of Guero, he’s had almost as many reinventions as he’s had songs. His last album Modern Guilt came out in 2008 and in releasing it he completed his recording contract with Geffen, which essentially allowed Beck to go forth and do whatever the heck he wanted, and he did!

Producing albums with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stephen Malkmus and Thurston Moore. Re-recording classic albums with super groups over the course of a single day, soundtracking Scott Pilgrims vs. The World (yes that’s right Beck is the songwriter behind Sex-Bob-Omb, who else would it have been?) and compiling a book of sheet music, up until last year Beck did pretty much anything but release his own music.

Then having has us all wondering when if ever he’d return, last year from nowhere we go three utterly incredible singles, the sprawling electro ballad Defriended, the catchiest tune he’s written in many years, the bass heavy I Won’t Be Long, and the weird bleep-heavy electro oddity Gimme. They were all in their own way incredible, Beck being Beck however matched these up not with a stunning electro-pop album, but by promising us an acoustic album, he’s nothing if not awkward.

Since those early days hearing Midnight Vultures I have grown into a huge fan of the work of Mr Hansen. He’s a live act with no rival, a superbly talented musician and producer, and most of all  he had the greatest cameo in the history of animation, when in an episode (Bendin’ In The Wind) of the criminally underrated Futurama, he teamed up with Bender to tour the states with a company of broken robots. Sample lines “Bender that was the best 40 minute washboard solo I’ve ever heard, the parts where I was awake blew my mind” and “pass me the Becktionary, no the rhyming Becktionary” if you’ve not seen it you simply must!

BECK – MORNING PHASE

As a reviewer part of the joy of taking on the challenge of writing about a well established artist is trying to draw comparisons with their past output. Beck took some of that joy away by doing it for us. Every press release, every interview we were reminded that this was as close as Beck is ever likely to get to following up Sea Change.

Sea Change is in many peoples eyes the highlight of the man’s career. A heartbreaking wade through a break up it led us in graphic detail through his emotions as the relationship first fell apart and then ended. It was moving, and as anyone who’s ever been through and upsetting break down in relations would tell you, very, very close to the bone. It was also bloody miserable! Every bit as sad as it was beautiful. Even “The Golden Age” about as positive a title as you could imagine featured the lines “These days I barely get by / I don’t even try” so you can imagine what “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, “Lost Cause” and “Lonesome Tears” sounded like. I don’t want to sound down on the record, I think it’s an absolute triumph, but it certainly fitted a mood and a place, and I never imagined Beck would ever release another record like it, and in truth in Morning Phase he hasn’t released a record as much like Sea Change as the press would have us believe.

There are of course similarities, for one thing sonically it has brought the musicians who helped Beck create his melancholic masterpiece back together. Opening track Cycle certainly has the same sonic template as Sea Change, with waves of pulsating strings, throughout the album we’re regularly treated to these instrumental pulses that seem to act almost as breaks in the album and give it a wonderfully unified feel. It’s a similar trick that Eels have often used throughout their career, specifically on the brilliant Blinking Lights. 

The first non-instrumental track, Morning, too certainly has nods in the direction of Sea Change, in fact it sounds a lot like Sea Change’s opening number The Golden Age. Starting off with a mellow acoustic guitar line, and some hauntingly beautiful layered vocals, it’s far removed from the early Beck records where his voice was arguably a weak point, here his voice is fantastic throughout and the production of the vocals is wonderful. It also wanders into the lyrical themes of Sea Change “This morning I lost all my defences /  This morning won’t you show me the way this used to be” it’s very much in the aftermath of a relationship but while the Beck of Sea Change sounded like a broken, defeated man here the musical backing adds a sense of light and possibility. Indeed the sound is warmer and with washes of strings and a touch of xylophone it’s quite something.

What largely lifts this album from being a mere pastiche of his earlier work is the song writing. Whilst the tracks on Sea Change would have made little or no sense on Guero say or Midnight Vultures, produced differently tracks like Heart Is A Drum could fit onto almost any Beck album. All the instruments have  a percussive air to them. Yes it’s an acoustic track, but it’s produced almost like a dance number.  Taking something as simple as a buzz on a guitar string and looping it to create yet more layers of percussion. The subsequent piano line is a beautiful thing, as are the double-tracked vocals which surge and pulse, rendering his voice yet another instrument in his musical armoury.

 “Say Goodbye” which follows too isn’t written like an acoustic number, indeed the structure of it is lifted straight from the Odelay era. Beck’s vocal delivery has a rhythm and flow too it which characterised his early forays into rap music. All of it backed by a percussive banjo, it’s an odd piece, and despite the main lyric being “these are the words we use to say goodbye” it’s only natural comparable on Sea Change was that albums most upbeat number “Paper Tiger”

The album lead single “Blue Moon” is nothing short of a triumph. The opening line “I’m so tired of being alone” he crows like a man sick of being sad, as he introduces a song about not wanting to be left “standing all alone” Musically there’s a twanging cousin of a guitar (I’m going to go for a mandolin but it could be a banjo) and some excellent drums. It’s actually fairly upbeat! Listening through headphones it’s a real treat, the clever panning of the guitar lines, causing it to jump around your ears, it gives it a superb sense on encompassing you without ever verging on being a gimmick. After the second chorus, we get the greatest moment of the album, a jaunty reverb heavy guitar line is matched sublimely with pulsating military style drums, it’s the euphoric sound of the sun breaking through the clouds despite the fact he closes the track repeating an earlier line “cut me down to size, so I can fit inside, lies you try to hide behind your own eyes” Whilst looking at the lyrics simplistically it could easily be about a girl (a pretty good bet) the feeling of general loneliness is perhaps more that of someone shut up from the outside world all together, a prospect Beck knows a lot about having suffered with illness and injury in the writing of this album.

Unforgiven completes a stunning opening salvo of tracks, as pulsing strings and sustain heavy piano chords gradually resolve to form a tune. The vocals are notably high in the mix, and despite them being heavily delayed they’re also sharp and crystal clear. He sounds terribly sad as he sings “somewhere unforgiven, I will wait for you”. This leads us into the next track Wave which is something of a turning point. Ominous sounding cyclical bursts of strings, are surely deliberately similar to the opening introductory piece and create a moody atmosphere, when the vocal enters it sounds like a man shouting in a cave, and as the song goes on and he simply repeats the word isolation, it’s initially harrowing, but at over 3 minutes long it becomes a tad repetitive and dull.

What follows is sadly a touch disappointing. Taken individually there’s nothing especially wrong with any of Don’t Let It Go, Blackbird Chain or Turn Away, indeed they all have interesting points to them, but none stick with you, none really add anything but some nice texture, and sadly the album does drag a little. They’re all beautifully produced and sound wonderful, Beck albums always sound wonderful, but they lack hooks and a bit of craft that lifts a track to something more than a lovely sound.

Luckily the closing two numbers are much better, Country Down is a gorgeous alt-country number, highly reminiscent of Ryan Adams, there’s also a welcome blast of harmonica, an instrument I personally consider to be criminally under appreciated! Better even than the harmonica, is the beautiful stage piano, it adds a wonderfully warm, mellow vibe to the song, basically it’s just a wonderfully crafted song, it all sounds perfect, which you’d fully expect from Beck. Closing track Waking Light gained a number of rave reviews when it was released prior to the album and it’s easy to see why. The whole song is like one long beautiful outro to the album as a whole, it’s the sound of resolution, all the issues and troubles the albums presented seem to melt away in a gorgeous hazy sunrise and you feel like Beck’s ready to start living again. It’s a brilliant example of why he seems to be so loved by film makers, it highlights perfectly his incredible ability to soundtracks life’s little seemingly inconsequential moments. It’s a stunning end to the album.

Morning Phase won’t go down as the classic Beck album, what it is is highly accomplished and incredibly pleasant on the ears, that sounds like I’m saying it lacks depth which it doesn’t. What it lacks is hooks and consistent song writing. It’s a very good album, possibly even a great one, but it’s just not quite as perfect as you want it to be. More than anything though you’re just delighted to have Beck back, because that is something that’s always worth hearing.

Morning Phase is out now on Virgin EMI

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