Saturday, May 24, 2014

Beck's Morning Phase on LP

Beck's Sea Change, released back in 2002, is one of those albums where I have a history with it, I can't imagine life without it and yet it's really difficult to sit down and listen to it at this, a positive point in my life. Sure, this was the album where I realized that Beck wasn't the ultra-hip prankster I thought he was, and I declared myself a fan. He was a real human being with real emotions and I really needed some of that substance twelve years ago, when I was experiencing a fairly turbulent time in my life. But a few years ago Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs came out with a re-mastered version of Sea Change and I kept putting off its purchase because I wasn't sure if I wanted to revisit that more shadowy state of mind. Despite these mixed feelings, I really wanted to hear it again because it's a really amazing album, easily my favorite from Mr. Hansen.

So last year I finally purchased the MFSL CD at a trade show. I headed back down the hall to my exhibitor room and immediately played it. Surprise, surprise. When life's going well, Sea Change isn't a downer at all. It's intense and angry and beautiful and playful and dreamy. In fact, nearly every cut puts one of those "oh yeah, this song" smiles on my face. So when I heard that Beck was putting out a "companion piece" in 2014, I wondered if it would have the same initial impact of its predecessor, or would it lack that extra layer of context.

Well, it's taken a few listens but I think Morning Phase comes close to equaling Sea Change and over time it could even surpass it. It comes from a different place in Beck's life, as well as mine, but it's clear that these two albums are intended as spiritual partners. Beck even asked a lot of the musicians who performed on the older album to appear here, and they did. That underlines the connection without being too obvious, and that's automatically another mark in the win column.

At first you'll think yes, this is merely a continuation of the older album. Once you listen to "Morning," the first track after a brief orchestral opening, you'll swear these songs were recorded during the same 2002 sessions. But as you move through the album, Beck starts taking more and more chances, and not the type of cartoon pinwheel-eyed chances he takes on albums like Odelay and Guero. It's a richer, more mature grab bag of genres, suggesting someone who has really expanded his musical horizons over the years and seeks to work them into his own art as quietly as possible. With this education you get receive such gifts as the laid-back early '70s California country-rock of "Say Goodbye" and "Country Down," the smooth late '70s R&B semi-ballad "Unforgiven," the angelic Simon and Garfunklesque folk harmonies in "Turn Away" and even a sleeker, more modern indie-rock perspective on "Phase." The orchestral interludes, interestingly enough, are more somber here than with the older album--you won't find any sultry tributes to Serge Gainsbourg here.

Then I read something interesting. Beck has said that this album, his first in six years, is his "California music." I've noted that already, but this is perhaps why Morning Phase could possibly be held in higher esteem than Sea Change oh, ten or twenty years from now. The older album, in retrospect, is Beck's grand ode to heartbreak--and it's a great one, or at least a really, really good one. But the newer album is more about specific feelings that are hopelessly attached to specific memories from long ago. If you're a fan of Sweethearts of the Rodeo or Gilded Palace of Sin or even the first couple of Eagles albums, you might be surprised at how favorably you respond to this album.

I think you'll also be surprised if you're a hardcore Sea Change fan who thinks it's impossible for Beck to really come up with something that's consistent twelve years later. But he did, and it's a pretty impressive feat.

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