Thursday, January 22, 2015

Morning Phase - Beck

Of course, like any good child of the 90's, I am quite familiar with Beck. I've heard good things about this album since its release, so it's no real surprise it was nominated, especially in what appears to be a "down" year overall. I also feel obligated to mention Scientology here, although I'm not sure it has anything to do with the album at all - I just find real, live human being involved in it to be fascinating.

Morning Phase opens with a slow, smooth, really well produced, guitar-driven "Morning." I've been listing to a lot of pop music lately (I have a two year old), so it may take me a few tracks to get into the spirit of something a little deeper and less straightforward. There's a real melancholy to the song, but a sort of hopeful melancholy. It's comforting in the middle of winter, like the world isn't always the way we want, but it might soon be, and even our present state isn't as bad as we might expect.

There's some indication this album began a decade ago, shortly after Beck's spinal injury. There's a real sense of, not boredom, but perhaps an unwilling patience - the necessity of stillness recovering from such an event. It seems to have given Beck a lot of time to think about the realities of life, but I'm not sure he's come to any real conclusions. "Heart is a Drum" and "Blue Moon" also fit into this category. "Unforgiven" is a haunting track, working the opposite end of the spectrum, using the lyrics to convey hope while implanting them within a slow, knowing instrumental track.

Parts of the album have a real 70's singer-songwriter feel to it (you could totally imagine Jim Croce singing songs like "Say Goodbye", even if you can't imagine him writing them). Beck adds a series of orchestral arrangements in the background to give the whole album a very ethereal feel - perhaps the Morning Phase he's going for.

Beck produced the album himself - it is entirely his labor of love. We wouldn't really expect anything else from a guy so particular about how he expresses himself and how he's (mis)understood by the general public. On a sort of cursory listen, Morning Phase doesn't sound all that different from any number of very good albums produced this year - and I imagine any of them could have filled this "artsy" slot that's seemed to arise at the Grammys lately - but Beck does earn the distinction through intricate production and deftly layered instrumental arrangements, which convey a real sense of depth, but also don't feel overburdened. I wonder if there's just a recognition of the time and effort he's put into the project, the same way Boyhood is being recognized by the Oscars.

"Wave" is an almost entirely orchestral track. Beck adds vocals to it, a haunting, sparse lyric, just eight lines and some repeated words that seem to be riding the strings up and down (which makes the track title quite apt). Beck worked with David Campbell on the orchestral arrangements and they really pay off, giving a unique quality to the album and creating a real sense of mood, evoking similar emotions to the lyrics in alternative, complementary ways.

A number of songs ("Don't Let it Go," "Blue Moon," and "Country Down") have lyrics speaking of return, loss, and longing for reunion. They sound like break-up songs. I don't know a ton about Beck's personal life, but I was under the impression he had a pretty strong relationship to his wife, Marissa Ribisi (twin sister of actor, Giovanni and fellow second generation Scientologist). The lyrics almost make one wonder if he's been missing something else in his life - perhaps a sense of self lost in his injury of just, perhaps, some of the joy of youth.

I think the best track might just be "Blackbird Chain." It's not the most fun to listen to - at least not the most pleasing to my ear - but it features interesting lyrics with a real panache, along with unique and unusual instrumental choices. It captures some of the melancholy on the album, but also infuses the traditional 70's vibe, bringing together all the elements on the album into one place. It's not my favorite track, for sure, but if you're only going to listen to one, pick "Blackbird Chain," knowing some of the other songs you'll like better, others you'll like worse, but they'll all contain elements of this one track within them.

It's hard to chose a favorite - so many of the songs have elements of joy and attraction, but I was particularly drawn to "Turn Away." It uses a harmonized vocal arrangement reminiscent of CSN&Y or Simon and Garfunkle, with a very simple acoustic guitar beat underneath, driving the song along. There's something deeper here, very personal, but also quite accessible. It's not as thought "Turn Away" is so much better than other tracks, but you feel like you have to choose something. I like this one.

Or maybe it's "Country Down," the track immediately following. Beck brings out a distinctly southern rock ballad vibe, using the instrumentation to emphasize the lyrical theme of traveling, escaping, wandering - yet it's also simple enough that the title exactly explains the song. (Ok, I really like "Don't Let it Go" as well. There's a lot of good songs on this album.

Morning Phase is that kind of album - maybe similar to Jack White's from last year, a well-respected music veteran and innovator, making a noticeably good album with nothing that particular stands out above the rest. "Country Down" is probably the only track that could get radio play, although with the homogenization of commercial radio, it'd be increasingly tough to know where you'd be able to hear it.

Morning Phase features two short, instrumental interludes, one at the beginning and one about two thirds of the way through the album. They seem to be precursors to the final track - "Waking Light" - a full song with lyrics that feels like the finale of a sunrise. If Beck's attempting to capture the feeling of morning, this is the sun finally escaping the horizon. There's a positivity throughout the music, with hopeful lyrics, almost an escape from the purgatory of roiling emotions exhibited throughout the album. If this is indeed his process of recovering from a major injury, this is the moment when he's able to get back to music, finish his album and move on. It'll be interesting to see what he chooses to perform at the Grammys, but I imagine it'll be a very stark departure from the rest of the show.

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