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"A plot against your will
Is furrowed into your brow
Against your better judgement
It’s all behind you now
Just a mile outside of town."
According to the press release, Beck regards his twelfth album, Morning Phase, as a companion piece to Sea Change (2002) -– the L.A.-based singer/songwriter’s forlorn masterpiece -– and the similarities are undeniably quite striking. Not only was Beck assisted by the same group of musicians in the studio -– Joey Waronker (R.E.M.), Roger Manning, Jr. (Jellyfish), Beck’s father David Campbell (string arrangements), among others -– he and his collaborators also largely replicated the melancholic atmosphere that permeated Sea Change. But whereas that mournful, autumnal album was fuelled by Beck’s heartbreak as a result of a recent, bad break-up with his girlfriend, on Morning Phase there’s a light at the end of that “long, dark night of the soul”, and it’s finally, albeit slowly, coming into view. Beck still sounds world-weary, but despite the album’s subdued, momentarily somber aesthetic, there’s sunshine streaming in through the half-closed persiennes.
Now a happily married husband and a proud father of two, Beck has put the past behind him to the best of his ability, even if it sometimes comes back to haunt him (“When that moon stole your shadows”) and old insecurities, a deep-rooted fear of being abandoned and feeling lonely, still seem to prevail: “Don’t leave me on my own / Don’t leave me on my own” he sings on Blue Moon, while he repeats the word “isolation…” in the concluding passage of Wave. But as dark as many of the lyrics are, there are also glimpses of hope scattered throughout Morning Phase like little, shimmering stars across a black night sky. Lyric excerpts like “Drive through the night / Far as it goes / Away from the daylight” are transformed into “High / As the light of day / Falling down on your lost highway” as the dawn breaks, carrying with it the promise of a new day and a new beginning.
The tranquil light that surrounds Beck on the front cover reflects the album’s sun-dazzled, mellow songs. The opening track, Morning, a sequel of sorts to Sea Change’s first track The Golden Age (and a distant cousin of Pink Floyd's Stay from Obscure The Clouds), arrives like the first sunrays of spring, its warm glow enveloping you and making you feel that everything is right with the world. The first single, the melodic Blue Moon, opens with jangly mandolin and closes with a chirpy, chiming electric guitar, both of which possess an Oriental sound –- possibly a very subtle allusion to “the east” where the sun rises.
The reflective, Nick Drake-esque Heart Is A Drum looks back on the dark times, with equal parts sad regrets and positive expectations for the future, delivering one of the album’s most poetic and poignant lyrical lines “Your eyes get stung by the rays of the sinking sun”, and the atmospheric Turn Away sounds like Simon & Garfunkel backed by Swedish/Argentine singer-songwriter José González’s acoustic fingerpicking. Even the song’s lyrics suggest a Simon & Garfunkel influence by including the words “sound” and “silence” (“Turn away / From the sound of your own voice / Calling no one / Just a silence”), surely a reference to the Folk/Folk-Rock duo's classic hit song The Sound Of Silence. The ‘70s Southern California vibe of Country Down has been compared to Neil Young, and while the harmonica solo and the drums do recall his Harvest-era material, Beck’s vocal phrasing has more in common with early Jackson Browne (his self-titled debut or his sophomore LP For Everyman).
Waking Light ends the album on the same optimistic note that began with Morning, its harmony-drenched chorus shining like sunlight breaking through the treetops (“When the memory leaves you / Somewhere you can't make it home / When the morning comes to meet you / Fill your eyes with waking light”), reaffirming the aforementioned promise of "a new day and a new beginning”. The ethereal, ambient Morning Phase is a very worthy spiritual successor to Sea Change -– a gorgeous, richly textured, impeccably produced album and a deeply satisfying addition to Beck’s already impressive back catalogue.