Beck’s Sea Change is a pretty perfect album. It’s accessible without being simple, deep without being cryptic, and depressing without being melodramatic. It’s a work that rewards with each new listen, in every emotional context. So last year’s announcement that Morning Phase, the first album by the songwriter in seven years, would not only return to the stylistic roots of Sea Change but also feature the same session musicians as the 2002 album, was simultaneously delightful and terrifying.
Sea Change highlighted Beck as a master of his craft, but after 12 years, is there anything new to say? Beck being a true musical chameleon (in his 20-year career, he’s dabbled in folk, punk, R&B, hip-hop, and classical music), is there a point to retreading old ground?
Like Sea Change, Morning Phase is a carefully constructed, emotionally dense folk album. Yet it would be entirely unfair to call Morning Phase, a stunning piece of work by an artist who simply has no right to be this talented this late into his career, a retread. It’s wholly individual, an album that quite rapidly shoots from eardrum to heartstrings.
From its start, Morning Phase is a deeply expansive, magnificent experience, its lush arrangements giving each song miles to breathe. The aptly named “Morning” beautifully weaves Beck’s sluggish acoustic guitar through shimmering synths. First single “Blue Moon” places the vocals at the center of the mix, cutting through twangy guitars only to pull them back as the song becomes an up-tempo march. “Unforgiven” is more sparse but nonetheless spacious, with effect-heavy guitars and echoing vocals only serving to push the song forward in all directions. “Wave,” the album’s gorgeous centerpiece, takes a similar tactic, accompanying Beck’s voice with a sea of strings that at times threaten to drown out the singer. All 13 tracks of Morning Phase are deeply detailed, immersive songs that feel new with each exploration. Their grand nature never feels gaudy, and their success is just as much indebted to the unfilled spaces of the arrangements as it is to the filled ones.
Yet the strength of these arrangements would be moot if Beck’s deeply personal lyricism weren’t the bedrock of Morning Phase and what truly gives it emotional drive. Where Sea Change was defined by crushing depression, Morning Phase flirts with cautious optimism. The crushing pain in Beck’s poetry isn’t gone (tracks like “Wave” and “Unforgiven” make that perfectly clear), but it is subdued, with moments of anguish bookended by moments of quiet hope. Tracks like “Morning,” on which Beck sings, “Found a love light in the storm,” or “Waking Light,” on which he croons, “Night is gone on a landslide of ribbon,” ultimately imbue Morning Phase with a kind of emotional serenity.
The songwriting’s true strength comes from its emotional accessibility. Morning Phase is an album that is simultaneously straightforward and abstract, wearing its heart on its sleeve and forcing listeners to engage with it to unlock its secrets. Beck has crafted a set of living, breathing songs that shift with time, their emotional context just as tied to the listener as the artist. The album contains enough clarity to be initially engaging, yet enough ambiguity to constantly remain interesting. It’s the type of work that we can carry with us, allowing each song to gain new meaning as we grow.
Morning Phase will likely never step out of Sea Change’s shadow, but to call it Sea Change Lite or Sea Change II is to ignore Beck’s monumental achievement. Morning Phase is an album that will stand the test of time: here, Beck doesn’t necessarily try to innovate or experiment. Instead, he succeeds in creating a masterfully executed work of beauty, one that latches itself to the heart and never lets go.