Everyone has their favourite version of Beck Hansen. Throughout his career, I've learnt to reset my expectations when it comes to a new album. Since, like, 1990, every release has been different, challenging, eccentric, and in some cases (Guero) a step backward to go forward. Some think he's the same loser getting crazy with the cheez whiz, choking on a pigeon wing and so on. But he's so much more.
Beck can pepper songs with references to the past but filter them through contemporary sounds. Beck can strip something back or throw the kitchen sink at it, if that particular Beck feels like it. A chameleon, one year he's a Princey character doing the splits, the next year donning a harp clip like Neil, or down the line, aping Herbie Hancock's ‘Chameleon' for a song about a dead cellphone. He also gained his fame as part of a MTV slacker crew that hung with grunge and the Beasties.
His catalogue is an aural magic carpet ride. Try explaining the Beck sound. Just try.
His first studio album in 6 years, Morning Phase, introduces itself with a grand orchestral swell. It's beautiful. Ever since 2002's revered Opus Sea Change, beauty has nested itself snugly within the ‘Beck lexicon'. It's no surprise that Hansen's been quoted stating the two are companion pieces of the same ilk.
But another full release of mopey, acoustic stuff? Some hate this side of him. Again, choose wisely. You've got Beck in singer songwriter mode here.
Luckily, he sounds confident, and like Daft Punk's RAM, the instrumentation is organic, classy and human sounding. The mellow ‘Morning' presents an instant aural kinship with Sea Change's ‘The Golden Age', and moving forward, there is enough variety on Morning Phase to stay intrigued. Flourishes of vocal harmony and violin, used to greatest effect on the gorgeous triumvirate of ‘Cycle', ‘Wave' and ‘Phase', present a new chapter to the Beck novel.
Most of the album is instrumentally rooted in drugged up 70's remiss. Velvets glockenspiel, acoustic guitar and piano all awash with reverb - it's a glorious, yet sad mix. The very prominent string section defines Morning Phase's sound, as do bellowing choruses from Beck that have their place atop a mountain. The singing would sound at home on a Fleet Foxes record, which ain't a bad thing. Instead, it's a spin on a style many thought he couldn't pull off the first time.
In the case of ‘Blue Moon', he sounds better anything on Sea Change, even when it opens with a lament: ‘I'm so tired of being alone, this penitent waltz is all I've known'. One of his greatest singles, the production is crisp and his voice front and centre. Around 2008, Beck nearly broke his back, forcing his vocals down to a whisper. He's healed now, and ‘Blue Moon' sounds like liberation.
There are other highlights. ‘Say Goodbye' takes the bounce of Odelay's ‘Readymade' and lays it gently under the harvest moon, ‘Turn Away' is a haunting, lonely ballad and ‘Waking Light', in what could be his best album closer yet, marries Brian Wilson with quaint Stones balladry. While there may be the casual dip in greatness through these 13 tracks, the overall quality rings true. You can hear the confidence, the eagerness in the finished product. To think another album's on the way this year is a testament to Beck's quietly innovative start to the decade (Song Reader, anyone?)
Morning Phase works on many levels - and in many ways too, an album just as pleasant as its 12-year-old forbearer.
The Beck you knew a few years ago no longer exists. There are no losers or devils haircuts or sex laws defied here. But the beauty is to be heard everywhere.
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