There’s always dense mythology that accompanies any artist who releases wildly disparate albums over the course of their career. Think Elvis Costello, think post-Beatles Paul McCartney, think Bob Dylan; they all tend to fall under the collective banner of “Legacy Artist” and if there was ever any doubt that Beck Hansen is one of these rare individuals, it can surely be put to rest with the release of his 12th studio album Morning Phase with new label Capitol records.
Opening with a lush string arrangement composed by Hansen’s father David Campbell entitled Cycle, it’s clear from the get-go that Morning Phase is a huge step up in emotional maturity from the man who once wrote jams like Sexx Laws or proudly proclaimed he was a Loser who knew Where It’s At with his “two turntables and a microphone”. This introduction transitions seamlessly into Morning which could be perfectly at home sitting on a timeless record like Neil Young’s Harvest or After The Goldrush were it not for a healthy dose of sublime, reverbed-out 2014 vocal layering.
This pair of records is an interesting comparison because like these two landmarks of Young’s inspired early ‘70s output, it has been said that Morning Phase is intended to be something of a sister record to 2002’s Sea Change – The perennial soundtrack to nearly 12 years and counting of 20-somthings having their hearts broken by each other. This could have something to do with the overall sentimental-slacker aesthetic Beck has curated for himself or the fact that it features many of the same session players (like longtime bass player Justin Meldal-Johnsen or Atoms For Peace drummer Joey Waronker) but either way just like a Rubber Soul/Revolver type experiment, Beck has achieved that rare feat of releasing two equally astounding records that explore a similar feel but with a completely different perspective on the human experience. The fact that Sea Change and Morning Phase are separated by 11 1/2 years is yet another testament to Beck’s innate ability to tap into any headspace he feels appropriate for “where it’s at” at any given moment.
On songs like Heart Is a Drum and Blackbird Chain, it’s wonderfully apparent that Beck is well and truly a ‘90s troubadour at heart but with the mind and hands of one of Laurel Canyon’s finest studio men of the late ‘70s. He effortlessly traverses from Badly Drawn Boy to Crosby Stills and Nash with the fragility of Elliott Smith or Tim Buckley all over the course of a single song without sounding like a frantic impersonator. First single Blue Moon features some intricate guitar/mandolin interplay and enough of a synth solo under its wall of gorgeous oohs-and-aahs to remind you that yes, this is a record that pays deep homage to the approach of the past (the first sessions for what would become Morning Phase took place at Jack White’s analog playground Third Man Studios in Nashville) but it’s well and truly equipped to survive in today’s climate. Read: This guy is “the real deal”.
Ending with second single Waking Light – a huge, ambient piano ballad replete with stunning string orchestrations like those on the aptly titled intro track, it makes you just want to go back to the start and have your heart dissected all over again in the most gentle, beautiful way. Like any record as truly great as this one, it could have been released at any point in history so we should consider our generation lucky enough to call an artist as profoundly gifted as Beck our own.