Beck, “Morning Phase” (Capitol)
“Sea Change” remains one of Beck Hansen’s most memorable albums of a 20-year album output because it sounds so different: Straightforward, not obtuse; melancholic instead of irreverent; acoustic and lush, not electronic and riddled with beats.
Now here comes the sequel to that 2002 album, a collection of 13 songs that are similarly themed and are cast in a familiar setting: acoustic instruments, strings, echo chamber. “Morning Phase” is intended as a bookend album, but it can be appreciated by its own merits. That is, the bleakness is not so bleak. While the first album sounded heated by the falling embers of a vanquished relationship, the second is more comfortable in its own skin. Downcast, sure, but some of the songs are so delicately rendered they stand as lovely reminders of how comfortable wallowing feels the day after a breakup.
Musical touchstones are obvious: Nick Drake if he headed the Velvet Underground, Simon and Garfunkel, and Radiohead at its sleepiest. Like “Sea Change,” the simplicity of “Morning Phase” forces a spotlight on Beck’s songcraft, an asset too often forgotten in light of his studio finesse. The baroque melodies of “Blue Moon” and “Say Goodbye” are as neatly crafted as the words: “Bones crack/curtains drawn/on my back/she is gone,” he sings, a sobering revelation that could double as a celebration.
The songs don’t bother getting dressed, instead they appear confident in their austerity. That approach gives Beck license to create sly innuendos with the lyrics: “Your heart is a drum/keeping time with everyone,” he sings, a phrase that at first sound like flattery, until he follows: “beat, beat, beat, it’s beating me down.”
The dusty vibe threatens to dry some of these songs to a husk. “Unforgiven,” for example, sounds washing away in the reverb, while “Wave” moves glacially, Beck’s voice under a pillow of melting strings and sonic fog. This is an album to cozy up with while alone, just don’t be insulted if it doesn’t hug you back.