There really are two different Becks. There’s Beck that made Odelay, Mellow Gold and Midnight Vultures, and then there’s Beck that made Mutations and Sea Change. I will be up front in saying that I was not the biggest fan of Sea Change. My impression when giving it a couple tries back when it came out twelve years ago was that it was too mellow. It didn’t hit me with the same kind of creative energy as something like “Nightmare Hippy Girl” from Mellow Gold. It felt like someone with the dumpy relationship blahs. While many regard the album as a classic, I could just never see it. I hated that I didn’t. In fact even when future albums like The Information came out, there was always a little bit of residual Sea Change left in there. So when I heard this new album was more or less a part two to Sea Change, I was at first very skeptical and was ready to skip it. Then at the last minute, maybe because nothing else came out that week that was on my radar, I chanced it. I was happy that I did.
Morning Phase seems to get a lot right that I felt was wrong with Sea Change. While these songs are all on the mellow side, they are distinct from each other. There are beautiful harmonies that don’t feel mumbled. On my second listen I already found myself singing along to many of the songs. Overall the album sounds far more deliberate. As I have just read, Beck had a severe spinal injury sometime before recording his last album Modern Guilt. Having healed now, there is a renewed energy in his voice. I do believe that made a difference in the urgency of these songs.
“Cycle” is a sweeping overture that sets the tone much like the opening music from a film. “Morning” is a gently strummed song about starting over a wrong turn. While it could be mopey, it’s not. It actually is hopeful in its tone. In many ways this reminds me of the pastoral side of early Pink Floyd (“Fat Old Sun” or “Crying Song” for instance), so of course that helps the music sink in easier. “Heart Is a Drum” has a little faster pace and some well places backwards loop effects. This one seems to be about hitting a wall of disappointment but not giving up. Some distant piano in this one is a nice touch. “Say Goodbye” is obviously a song about parting ways. This one has some great vocals and was one of the first to be stuck in my head after listening. “Blue Moon” starts with some ukelele and feels more like a track that could fit on one of the earlier albums. It’s a song about being afraid to be alone for too long, but has a beautiful melodic chorus of “Don’t Leave Me On My Own”. Rounding out the first half is “Unforgiven”, which slows things down quite a bit to a creeping crawl. This one does seem to capture post-breakup blahs but at least the atmospherics and instruments are distinct and really do shape something.
The second half (at least how I heard it) starts with “Wave”, which starts of with big sweeping strings that set a mental picture for the “lost at sea” theme of the song. This one makes me think about some of Radiohead’s more cinematic moments around the Kid A era for some reason. Below is a link to watch Beck’s excellent performance of this on Saturday Night Live. “Don’t Let It Go” seems to be about guarding yourself from feeling emotions for another for fear of the outcome you can’t see yet. Musically this is has a gorgeous acoustic guitar/piano/cello combo. “Blackbird Chain” approaches what I think of more as the overall vibe of Sea Change, but there’s some clever lyrics here like “A symbol of your exegesis in a full-length mirror”. “Phase” is another short overture, kind of a continuation of “Cycle”. “Turn Away” is one of my favorites here. It’s a haunting acoustic song with ghostly harmonies. It reminds me of the feel of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. “Country Down” is more or less a cry in your beer country song. Somehow it works though, maybe because of the harmonica solo and the atmospherics. “Waking Light” is the finale of sorts. If you look at the set of songs as a cycle (as I believe the titles imply), this one revisits the same theme as the beginning of the album, with a renewed sense of hope and belief in self about moving forward past the doubts and worries of hitting a low point.
I am actually surprised that this album impressed me. I’m already a few listens in, and as I found out this morning, this album is an excellent “Sunday morning” album to drive around and unwind to. Maybe it’s the fact I’m 12 years older than when Sea Change came out. But I’m thinking it’s just a much better and much more focused album. Musically there’s a lot of detail and thought here in the quiet. This still isn’t going to stop making me wish for another Midnight Vultures, but while I wait I will definitely be enjoying this one.
Check out some performances from the album here:
“Blue Moon” (Live on SNL):
“Wave” (Live on SNL):
“Waking Light” (Audio Only):