Review: Beck, Morning Phase

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Morning Phase”, the album by Beck, which originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

Everyone needs sad songs occasionally. A little musical wallow can be an important part of the healing process – whether you’re getting over loneliness (Nilsson’s “Without You”), a departed child (The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”), or the destruction of Jerusalem (the Book of Lamentations – not as catchy, that one).

Sea Change, Beck Hansen’s 2002 album, was a collection of tear-drenched songs inspired by the break-up of Hansen’s nine-year relationship, and as such provided some superior material for moping around your bedroom crying. These were songs performed at a glacial pace, draped in sincerity rather than the slacker cool of Beck’s career highlight Odelay.

Now, twelve years later, he’s gathered the same musicians together for a tonal sequel to Sea Change – this time the blood-letting coming not as a response to the death of a relationship, but following an extended period of incapacity because of an injury to his spine.

Because of this shift in the source of the misery, Morning Phase’s mood is more one of existential malaise than the raw nerve-endings of its prequel. Indeed, after a ten-year marriage and two children, Beck sometimes seems a little bit too happy to be singing sad songs – the music plucking the heart-strings, but the lyrics only offering formless cut-up poetry in response.

There are glimmers of commentary about his injury – lines like “Bones crack / Curtains drawn / On my back / And she is gone” from Say Goodbye are practically begging for lyric nerd interpretations on SongMeanings.com – but it’s more the mood of these quiet, slow songs that communicates the grief.

Stylistically, the homage to Sea Change is striking – Nick Drake-esque folk augmented by stately, deliberate country swing. The lush strings of Hansen’s father David Campbell are once again employed to great effect, washing over the finger-picked guitars; particularly on “Wave”, where the nautical swells of the string arrangements underline the woozy mood. However, taken as a whole, there’s an unnerving sense that Hansen is walking a path he’s already ventured down; the great innovator’s comforting retreat into the language of his past.

There are a few diversions – the emphatic piano stabs of “Blue Moon”, some lovely phased keys in “Unforgiven”, or the Gothic country of “Turn Away” – but the album’s tone is so monolithic, so uniform, that it slips effortlessly into a forgettable slab; Beck as background music.

As a second-generation Scientologist, Beck is – presumably – extremely familiar with the ‘auditing’ process, where individuals relive past traumas to free themselves of their baggage. It is perhaps unfair to suggest this, but maybe Morning Phase fulfils the same function. It’s Beck talking us through his post-injury isolation, telling us how it felt to be in that room. Lonely, motionless, inert – his thoughts fractured, his sense of self washing away on the tide.