Few musicians have spanned as many eras and genres as Beck. They have never reached Miley status, but the 43-year-old’s hits dating back to the mid-80s ring at least a few bells in our pop music archive. His songs tend to evoke varying extents of familiarity among even the most casual listener. After the sugary tempos grab your attention, you can sort of relate to his vague-enough lyrics. Say what you will about the content, but this combination has been definitive of Beck’s music career. All of this said, Beck’s winning streak hits a dead end with his latest record. “Morning Phase” was written as a companion to 2002’s “Sea Change.” The album attempts comparably relaxed guitar melodies and stripped-down vocals that accompany Beck’s self-introspective lyrics, but his take on nuanced departure results in a mess of uninspired writing and misplaced country plucking.
Even with (or, maybe because of) its lack of lyrics, the opening track, ‘Cycle,’ is my favorite on the record. Its airy violin could’ve played during the “Tree of Life” opening credits, suggesting a majestic beginning to a solid set of tracks. But the promise ends only 40 seconds in; the song is only an intro to its successor, ‘Morning,’ a lethargic guitar and xylophone lullaby that sets the tone for the rest of the gloomy album.
A sharp and bouncy guitar slices through the opening slow drum in ‘Blue Moon’ before Beck’s downtrodden vocals make their entrance. An ambivalent tribute to loneliness, the song has some redeeming qualities: springy instrumentals smoothly counter the unhappy lyrics (“I'm so tired of being alone, these penitent walls are all I've known”) to bypass mawkish ballad territory.
The alluring violin opening in ‘Wave’ is again interrupted by Beck’s lyrical monotony. With its dark orchestral peaks and austere refrains (the word “isolation” is sung slowly and repeatedly in the latter half), this song has the potential to be the dark serenade Beck intends. However, the overly contrived tone makes it a hard sell. I understand where Beck is coming from, but emotion-as-art should be subtler, and intentionality should never read louder than the music itself.
With its string of sluggish and loosely assembled country ballads, this record brings Beck’s steady track of strong releases to a screeching halt. For the alt pop star, coping with a waning stock of creativity meant carelessly dropping a banjo into the mix. You might think I’m going too hard on a dude who’s been in the game long enough to be unapologetic about his craft, but Beck’s veteranship is all the more reason “Morning Phase” should have delivered more substance.