Increasingly, I found that all Morning Phase brings to mind (at best) is people far past their prime, and much of the work in getting to grips with the record comes with understanding how that might be the case for Beck too. After all, this is the notional sequel to (which is as good a marketing ploy as any) Sea Change, but where that record played with menace, Gainsbourg, desperation, horror, metaphor, melody, all kinds of stuff, this is so middle of the road it’s pretty much a strip of white paint. This is to Sea Change what every band described as the new Radiohead was to OK Computer, which makes this the Travis of Beck albums.
Let me be more specific. There’s Beck making an album that heads toward the middle of the road that keeps him intact — a Beck MOR (Middle of the Road) album (Mutations, Sea Change) — and then there’s an MOR album made by Beck. Morning Phase is the latter, and it sits a heck of a lot more comfortably next to James Blunt than it does Odelay. He might have decided to play it straight, but he’s forgotten to even show up here. Strange as it is to think of Beck being in a creative twilight — hear “Deadweight” and you can still witness whole worlds of weird assemble at the dude’s feet — things feel out of his grasp throughout Morning Phase, whether it’s the thinness of the melodies, the well vague hedgings of the lyrics, or the way in which the the record constantly gestures at darkness — emotion, anything — without ever remotely delivering it. This is a pair of dark sunglasses on a mannequin.
There’s a magic gone here. Things aren’t lining up. There are points of positive droop (“Unforgiven” is just a big ol’ leaden gargle), sure, but even for a record that’s clearly approaching the listener from an angle that’s almost cynically stark, there are few moments of actual pathos. When they do appear, it can be shiver-inducing in a way Sea Change wasn’t. Like, the opening lines of “Turn Away”— “Turn away/ From the sound of your own voice/ Calling no one/ Just the silence” — keen with a genuine quiver, and the word “silence” arrives in layered harmonies that call back to “Sounds of Silence” in a way that’s pretty bone-chilling. But therein the moment scatters. The lyrics drift off point, as he starts talking about avalanches, which is interesting, because so much of the record’s flatter points see Beck talking about natural events as a placeholder for expressing any of his own feelings. The most key of these is “Wave,” which has been touted as the centerpiece, the dread seasick currents of the string arrangement easily making it the most affecting piece of music Beck’s written since “Sexx Laws” (polar opposites I know, but). However, the lyrics can’t carry the conceit — eventually he tapers off to a flub, simply intoning “isolation” over and over again in a way that pretty aptly synecdoches Morning Phase’s connection problem.
So, largely unimaginative arrangements, flat delivery, a surfeit of vague ecological metaphors that wash like spray on the rocks (you can have that one for free, Mr. Hansen), and a lack of any sense of connection, of need, of reality. I could listen to The Foo Fighters, you know? He used to be able to sell even the most bizarre bill of goods, but here Beck can’t get me convinced on meat and potatoes. Here’s my plan for this record: rename it, rename Beck, put a layer of dust on it, give it a summer of 1971 refried acid painting or a real dusty earnest lonely photograph for a cover and bury it in a Williams-Somona loft that’s been walled up since at least the Carter administration. Then you can find it on a blog (probable tags: lost, loner, masterpiece, laurel canyon), download it, listen to it, and give up on spending time blog-trawling for a while just because of how much of a bummer of a failed bum-trip this record is.
03. Heart is a Drum
04. Say Goodbye
05. Blue Moon
08. Don’t Let It Go
09. Blackbird Chain
11. Turn Away
12. Country Down
13. Waking Light