Beck’s orchestral folk album simplifies his sound without stripping it down and shows off some of the best vocal harmonies in modern music.
Beck is one of those artists with such a large and varied discography that it can feel practically impenetrable. The list is daunting: twelve studio full-lengths spanning psychedelic, funk, and folk; collaborations with everyone from Thurston Moore to Childish Gambino; Yanni cover albums; the Song Reader project where he wrote an album of sheet music and let other people figure out how it’s supposed to sound. His accomplishments go on, and it’s for this reason that I’ve never tried hard to break into his work—in 2015, we’ll be coming up on Beck’s 30th active year of music (that’s a long way from “Loser”). So it might be a while before I dive in.
All of this is to say that his gorgeous new album Morning Phase is easily my favorite thing I’ve heard yet this year.
I first listened to Morning Phase on (yep) a Sunday morning while laying in bed, and I have to commend a well-thought-out title. Gorgeous vocal melodies and harmonies wash through your eyelids like the sun coming through the blinds, and there’s a sense of longing in every song that jangles along in ways that would do Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Byrds proud.
The production is absolutely radiant as well, stuffed with thick reverb to create an audible shimmer on songs like “Say Goodbye” and “Wave”. There are lots of great tricks, like the flanger effect on the piano in “Unforgiven” that sounds like every chord is a rocket breaking the atmosphere’s grip. It’s as lush a music bedding as you could want across the board, with a focus on pushing sitars, violas, and melodica to new places and textures. Beck does a great job varying the textures on an all-acoustic album—the first harmonica I heard on Morning Phase was somewhere around the penultimate track “Country Down”, and it’s amazing how refreshing it sounds.
Yet with all the light that the instruments shine on this album, I keep coming back to how translucent Beck’s voice sounds. He’s found a style of singing that’s very close to James Mercer of The Shins—calming and clear, with a soaring quality that gives it an ethereal tone. Lead single “Blue Moon” wouldn’t be out of place on Eddie Vedder’s Into The Wild soundtrack, which has pretty much been my benchmark for “soaring” since its release. Beck has the experience to understand instinctively which parts of each song need a harmony and when his voice should stand alone. It’s a gift that has definitely been honed over time, as songs like “Blackbird Chain” are a four-minute masterclass in both excess and restraint.
It’s astounding, given how much I’ve been connecting with this album, that I still haven’t felt compelled to delve deeper into Beck’s discography (aside from a reintroduction to Sea Change, which is also great, even if he refined his approach more on this record). That’s just one of the weird quirks of music—sometimes you’ve already got what you need in your hands, even if there’s a whole ‘nother crate to dig through. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a phase.
Favorite Tracks: “Don’t Let It Go”, “Blue Moon”, “Say Goodbye”