The warm promise of Beck’s Morning Phase

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3: 22-23)

Beck, once a wunderkind of the ’90s alt-rock scene and then a surprising darling of the Americana world, sits back, digs in and crafts some absolutely gorgeous music on his latest release, Morning Phase.

Though it contains obvious nods to Sea Change, the 2002 set that boldly re-defined him as a truly versatile artist, Morning Phase takes Beck’s chilled side to new levels of chillness. Most of the dozen songs - and the string intro - are either super slow or have the tempo so buried under ambience that they feel slow. And he’s not just using a slow-down technique to focus attention. He commits to it. As song after song come through the speakers, it is clear that Beck wants us to sit down, take a deep breath and just go there with him.

Writing slow songs is hard. Producing low-key music that is not two-dimensional and boring is extremely difficult. It may have been Beck’s quirky, mash-up sensibilities that earned him a seat at the pop-culture table, but it will be his undeniable craft as a melodicist, lyricist and producer that keeps him there. Morning Phase doubles down on the instincts of Sea Change and comes up with a surprisingly hopeful, encouraging and mature sensibility. Elements of Neil Young, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel and even 10cc mesh together in an ambient haze. Stacks of vocal harmonies (all supplied by Beck himself), atmospheric falsettos, rich acoustic instruments and orchestral elements are tweaked by the very subtle presence of samples, loops and backwards tape. The result is a highly effective representation of the half waking-half sleeping feeling of those first morning moments, as dreams good and bad fade and the sunlight moves across the blankets. It’s something warmer and truer than simple drug-induced psychedelia. This is a feeling we all can relate to.

Lyrical nuggets occasionally rise to the surface, just long enough to get our attention before dipping back down beneath the covers, pulling us with them. A line like “These are the words we use to say goodbye” is evocative enough for me to go back and listen to more of the story. “Bones crack, curtains drawn, on my back and she is gone, somewhere else I do not know, time will tell and I will go…” I find myself looping songs like this - feeling the vibe and enjoying the references to Neil Young’s Harvest. “Blackbird Chain” offers poetic images of a morning bedroom as well, but comes out with a lifelong commitment and this:  “A keepsake in a dresser drawer from who knows where, a symbol of your exegesis and a full-length mirror.” No, I don’t claim to know exactly what he’s talking about, but these are not the phrases of a lazy, vague, rambler. He seems to be inviting us to read into the words, maybe even intending for us to notice the Biblical allusions.

Throughout the record the images of waking and slumber, dreaming and forgetting, escaping and embracing, all return. Where Sea Change slowed things down with a sort of nervous tension, Morning Phase offers a warmly glowing light of encouragement. The sun rises. Hope springs. I can’t help thinking about Lamentations 3: 22-23 as I listen. I even found myself improvising a melody of my own last night as the songs swirled around. “New every morning,” indeed.

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