Genre-hopping musician and 90’s slacker icon Beck has been pretty quiet in recent years – at least when it comes to releasing his own material. Beck’s latest, his first album in six years, more than makes up for this wait. The sombre Morning Phase is just excellent – it’s his best album in over a decade.
Beck has never really stopped releasing great music but for each of his albums since 2002’s flawless Sea Change, this greatness has been accompanied with some sort of disclaimer. Guero was great but it felt like a lesser retread of Odelay’s peerless post modern grab-bagging. The Information was great but it was also way too long, it’s momentum ruined by songs that had no place being there. Modern Guilt on the other hand had the opposite problem – as great as it was, it was simply too short and insubstantial to measure among his very best. Finally, after an 8-year gap, Beck has delivered an album that needs no such excuses. Morning Phase is really, truly great.
The moment the lush strings of the short opener Cycle melt into that gorgeous, flawless acoustic guitar stroke of Morning, we’re back in familiar territory. Everything here, from the slowly strummed acoustic guitars to the lush string accompaniments instantly brings to mind to exquisite heartbreak of Beck’s last masterpiece, Sea Change. So strong is this likeness that a lot of early press talk and reviews have pitched this as some kind of sequel to that record. And while broadly speaking that’s a pretty valid suggestion, the reality is a little less reductive than that.
Beck’s infamous musical restlessness means that, for the most part, no two of his albums sound alike. At least that was the case until 2005’s Guero, his 6th album, which tried a little too hard to ape Odelay and, for all its strengths, felt somewhat inessential as a result. While it’s true that Morning Phase bears a great similarity to Sea Change, it manages to avoid that fate by embracing Beck’s maturity. Sea Change felt like the overheard diary entries read over achingly heartbreaking melodies, a little self-pitying perhaps but earnestly so. Morning Phase is also slow, reflective and often sad too but the voice and tone has changed. There’s pain and despair here – “I’m so tired of being alone” he sings on Blue Moon but generally the songs are more hopeful and the delivery less agonisingly direct. This is the sound of a musician ten years older and ten years wiser.
Surprisingly, despite (or perhaps because of) this tonal shift, the saddest songs here are easily the best. The pretty Morning Phase instantly recalls the sunset strum of Sea Change’s Golden Age but after that it’s the songs that aim for the tear ducts that leave the biggest impression – most notably string drenched desolation of Wave and the mournful Turn Away. Still, every track here is so lovely and of a piece that is feels unfair to pick favourites. It’s all great.
The wait may have been agonising but Morning Phase is absolutely worth it. This quietly unassuming record is up there with Beck’s very best and, particularly for fans of his more sensitive side, is truly essential listening.