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Morning Phase has been billed as a “companion piece” to Beck‘s 2002 LP, Sea Change, a divisive record that had champions hailing it as a masterpiece, detractors condemning it as a lukewarm mess, and enablers labelling it a modern-day Blood on the Tracks. This new, auroral dispatch reintroduces Beck with a newfound resolve and sees him finally understanding that what separated him from Dylan last time was that while Dylan was busy reflecting, he was merely wallowing.
Following a six-year period spent keeping uncharacteristically silent, which was itself was preceded by a four-year period spent issuing albums that were more often solid than inspired, Beck has finally emerged from near-hibernation and reentered the sunlight with a new bounty and persona in tow.
The masks he’s chosen to wear over the years — the rapper, the loser, the folk poet, the gringo — are invariably reflected in his albums. That’s not to say that Beck is in any way disingenuous, but it explains why his output can at times be skittish.
Skimming Beck’s hefty catalogue, you get the idea that this tallow headed chameleon feels compelled to keep his audience up to date with what colour he’s changed to next. This is an exhausting enterprise for the listener as much as the artist.
So it bodes well for Morning Phase that it comes after a considerable gap between projects, during which the artist, among other things, recovered from a recently revealed spinal injury. The recovery period has replenished his confidence and lines like “Send your love in a rampage / Give her everything you’ve got / And when you come to hate her / Show her more than just a spark”, from the Shins-esque Heart Is a Drum, is Beck ditching the pretence and no longer hiding behind “Andale, Joto, your popsicle’s melting” or another Dadaist dissection of 21st Century anomie.
While the precursor was often icy and inhospitable, with tracks like Lonesome Tears bearing dagger-like strings and wounded, haunting vocals, Morning Phase offers the listener the kind of warmth for which Beck himself yearns. He’s traded the wounds in for bruises and there’s a sense of tranquil vagrancy throughout the album.
Even on Morning Phase’s most desperate moment, Blue Moon, when he begs “Oh don’t leave me on my own” and asks you to “See the turncoat on his knees / A vagabond that no one sees”, the opulent arrangements and joyous melodies offer a welcome respite from the melancholy.
Morning Phase still has the trademark variety of a Beck album, but for the first time since Midnite Vultures, things haven’t been Frankensteined together. Hazy, sprawling tracks like Morning sit comfortably amid the Simon & Garfunkle-like new dawn of Turn Away.
The country drive of Blackbird Chain, which opts for the folk pop of America’s 1971 debut as its touchstone, is able to exist on the same plane as the phasing piano and gliding strings of Unforgiven so easily, and even the pastoral Country Down shifts beautifully into the spectral Waiting Light.
He’s left room for self-indulgence, too. Everything from the subtle pun of the title to lines like “These penitent walls are all I’ve known” are designed to help the listener understand how much smarter Beck is than them. But this is only because he’s decided to don his artist cap in lieu of his entertainer’s fez.
Besides being a cohesive and emotionally satisfying listen, it’s a signal to Beck fans that they can breathe a sigh of relief, because he certainly has. Morning Phase is no Blood on the Tracks, but it really isn’t trying to be. Though like Dylan’s repine, it’s an album that comes from a place of intelligence, maturity, skill, and above all, comfort with oneself.