“Predictable” is a term that all artists loathe. Yet for Californian slacker veteran and tireless innovator Beck, this is a label rarely, if ever, applied. Like Radiohead and a handful of other popular alternative acts, Beck has built up a reputation for both brilliant songwriting and relentless creativity and experimentation. To this end, Morning Phase is by no means generic, but does hark back to the sound of 2002’s Sea Change, thus making it about as “predictable” as you’ll ever get with Beck.
Opening with the gorgeous strings of ‘Cycle’, the album takes a plunge head first into melancholy with ‘Morning’, a magnificent paean to love lost. Lilting strummed acoustic chords and a sleepy keyboard melody (highly reminiscent of previous Sea Change single ‘The Golden Age’) give way to a soft vocal that pleads, “won’t you show me the way it could’ve been?” This is a sound present throughout the album, the effect of which captivates by managing to be both hopelessly downcast and powerfully uplifting, which is no small feat for any artist. ‘Say Goodbye’ and ‘Heart is a Drum’ drift by wondrously, the latter in particular exemplifying how seventies folk tragedy Nick Drake hovers over the album as a clear influence.
The halfway point, however, is the album’s most stunning moment. ‘Unforgiven’, with its spacey keys hints at Beck’s usual experimentalism without detracting from the heartfelt sorrow of an otherwise traditional song. ‘Wave’, the following track, is genuinely breath taking. A strong contender for being the album’s highlight, Beck’s voice appropriately washes over in a mournful drawl, floating seamlessly on a bed of luscious strings. On a sprightlier note, the plucked banjo of upcoming single ‘Blue Moon’ has an uplifting oriental feel, with Beck seemingly content to admit, “I’m so tired of being alone”. Continuing this, Beck has clearly been drawn to the folk-driven American ‘singer-songwriter’ sound of Neil Young on ‘Blackbird Chain’ and ‘Country Down’, before culminating in ‘Waking Light’, a more positive ballad that is indisputably the album’s most powerful moment.
Like the seminal Sea Change, this is an album filled with hushed sounds, glorious bursts of emotion and effortlessly powerful songwriting. It is fitting, then, that Beck has spoken of Morning Phase as a ‘sister album’ to Sea Change. Despite this, the overall sound may be similar (the same backing band reappears for the entirety of the album), but Morning Phase does represent a glorious, mature progression. For anyone all too familiar with heartache and emotional turmoil, this album is a must-buy. There are certain moments when the album slightly misses its mark, becoming a tad too reliant on immersing the listener in vast waves of reassuring strings, and the pleasant ‘Turn Away’ in particular seems to lazily recycle the “stock” sound of the rest of the album. Despite this, Morning Phase is a magnificent effort, and, in the same way as Sea Change, showcases why Beck is still the indie world’s most interesting and accomplished songwriter.By Sam Booker