REVIEW: Beck – ‘Morning Phase’

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Artist: Beck
Album: Morning Phase
Genre: Alternative rock, folk rock
Label: Capitol

Beck is known for asking important questions in music, presenting listeners with poignant thoughts that beg for an active listening. His early albums laced hip hop with a rock edge, until his middle period verged into noisey, experimental work; an alternative rock in the truest sense. Sea Change was a reinvention that posed: What if an artist known for mixing rock and electronic went for a stripped down sound? While still heavily produced, it was a reverse Bob Dylan move that won over critics in 2002. Three years later, Guero followed and moved in multiple directions: at once giving the epitome of the Dust Brothers production on tracks like “E-Pro” while showing a less white influence on songs like “Que Onda Guero” and “Girl.” A period of quiet experimentation followed: a good but largely forgettable album in Modern Guilt, a brilliant set of compositions as all the indie rock in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, an album as sheet music that anyone could interpret their own way.

And now this.

What is reinvention if you become who you already were?

You won’t read a review that doesn’t compare Morning Phase to Sea Change, because Morning Phase sounds like a sequel. It doesn’t sound like a man looking back at a project and sensing it was incomplete. It doesn’t sound like an artist feeling a new blood flow through old veins. It doesn’t sound like rejected songs from a brilliant session – these are not the extra verses of “Lost Cause” thrown onto a new palette and repainted.

This sounds like a conscious decision to follow up a few years of trying new things with something easier and tamer. A press release names it a “companion piece,” but if this is a companion, it is a little, less intelligent brother; a dozen years younger than his elder, he longs to dive right into what big brother Sea Change does without ever wondering why it worked the first time. Harmonies were cool, right? Throw it in the mix. Dad used to write orchestral arrangements? Let’s add strings all over the place. We had some cool support in 2002? In 2014, let’s get jazz-fusion legend Stanley Clarke to support on upright bass.

It worked for the elder brother because he was new. No one saw him coming; the unexpected thing for a wild artist to do was to be tame. It doesn’t work on Morning Phase. You can’t turn a 12-song collection into a 25-song collection twelve years later and expect to pull it off, let alone without the same level of songwriting and creativity that brought it the first time. Hire a bum off the street to write Sea Change again, and you have Morning Phase.

There’s a heavier album expected to come from Beck at some point later this year. Perhaps the sequel will have more musical integrity, more lyrical integrity than this rehashed take on recovery. The food on here isn’t simply the same recipe; it feels like the same meal, microwaved more than a decade later. 2014: “Why does it hurt this way? To come so far to find they’ve closed the gates.” 2002: “No more ashes to ashes, no more cinders from the sky.” 2014: “Looked up this morning, saw the roses full of thorns.” 2002: “There’s a blue bird at my window, I can’t hear the songs he sings. All the jewels in heaven, they don’t look the same to me.

Writing in the same style with the same lyrical mindset would be fine if it were particularly good, but it isn’t. It’s an expected album with a predictable quality, every creative stone left unturned. Even on the tracks where a brilliant song lay in there somewhere, an overproduction ruins it. This is a remarkable thing for an album sounding so “simple,” and yet, that’s the key to sounding like Morning Phase: taking a bare bones song with little value and producing it as much as possible while still letting it keep the songwriter skeleton. It worked well on Sea Change, but on this?

What is reinvention if you become who you already were, but a shadow compared to a darkness, a hatchling to an eagle, a connect-the-dots sketch to a masterpiece?

Boring.

SCORE: 4/10
Review by: Dan Bogosian (Twitter)

Dan Bogosian

I finished school with a music theory degree. Before I finished school, I was a janitor. You really should apologize to all the janitors you've ever had. You hurt them. Seriously. You did.

But, now that we've cleared that up and you called your high school janitor, know that I quit being a janitor to pursue writing about music. So here I am, and here you are, and hey how are you?
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  • K. Bennett

    Not that this is a good thing… but such a good album to sleep to. :-D