Beck: Morning Phase – review

Beck's return to the personnel and feel of 2002's Sea Change makes for a deeply contemplative listen

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These are impatient times, in which attention spans dart and flicker, too often to the exclusion of sustained immersion. It follows that few mainstream artists are making albums like Morning Phase. These 13 songs flow like magma on a go-slow, rather than in torrents of bits. Every track here is like a fat analogue sunrise gradually asserting itself, usually through some haze, at the conclusion of some dark night of the soul.

You might call the pace funereal, if Morning PhaseBeck's first studio album in six years – weren't so equable and resolved. It's a mellow album, if bittersweet. "Woke up this morning," are the first words Beck sings on Morning, but the track is the opposite of a blues. Gauzy strums play off against the gentle watercolour brushstrokes of Beck's vocal, filled out by multi-tracking.

The need-to-know about Morning Phase is that it returns to the personnel (drummer Joey Waronker, keyboard player Roger Manning, and guitarists Smokey Hormel and Jason Falkner) and the vibe of 2002's Sea Change, a break-up record that halted Beck's postmodern phase and, with it, the sampling, costumes and magpie eclecticism for which he was chiefly known (the first Beck album was in fact an acoustic record, One Foot in the Grave).

With Morning Phase it's impossible to say for certain what triggered such contemplative languor. An educated guess would be that the years spent nursing a spinal injury may have supplied Beck with a lot of dark nights to get through. While he was out of contract and unable to play, Beck wasn't idle – last January's sheet music album Song Reader was the end point of another equally postmodern phase, producing other people's records (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stephen Malkmus), re-recording classic albums for fun with kindred musical spirits, and throwing one-off songs (the excellent Defriended was just one) out on to the internet. Beck has taken to calling this album his "California record", not with reference to the carefree sun and sea songs of the Beach Boys, but more in the vein of the stoner Shangri-La of the 1970s Laurel Canyon scene.

There are elegant passages of strings and brass too, contributed by Beck's father, David Campbell. These would sound austere if they weren't so lush. The production values are thoroughly oaky; the opening bass on Unforgiven is so deep it's virtually in dub. A number of songs here borrow the lope of country music (and, on Country Down, the pedal steel and harmonica solos too). Only the lovely Turn Away breaks into anything like a folky clip. It sounds a little like the Byrds, those well-known boy-racers, singing through a particularly foamy surf.

So: slow going. It is emphatically not a record for people in a hurry. And all this dawning can feel a little like groundhog day if you're not in the mood to receive this rich album's central idea: that your load will probably become easier to bear when there is some light on the path ahead.

You don't get to this dawn without The Fear making an appearance, of course. Wave consists of an awesome ebbing, flowing combination of authority-figure strings and saturated Beck vocals that could easily harsh the mellow of anyone in a fragile state. It is a reckoning, but Beck is pretty Zen about it: "If I surrender and I don't fight this wave," he breathes, "I won't go under/ I'll only be carried away."


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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