I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Beck, for the simple reason that for all his undeniable talent, it’s been hard to find any sort of heart in his music. He’s always come across as a sort of arch postmodernist trickster — someone who flits between genres and modes, someone who’s adept in all of them but frustratingly difficult to actually get a handle on. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the one album of his that did connect with me was Sea Change, his famously downbeat 2002 breakup album: it’s the one record on which the veneer dropped, revealing something about the man beneath.
For this reason, I was more interested than usual in his new record Morning Phase, which has been described pretty much everywhere as a “sequel” or “companion piece” to Sea Change. And sure, you can hear why: Beck reunited with many of the musicians who worked on that album a decade ago, and on first listen, it feels like you could very well be listening to Sea Change 2.0 — so much so that when the new album segued into the older one (they’re next to each other in my iTunes, due to the lack of Mutations), it took me until halfway through “Paper Tiger” to notice the transition.
You might ask, of course, whether this is an entirely good thing. But while this record doesn’t exactly mark a radical stylistic progression, it does seem to reveal some inner truths about its creator. And that makes it all the more intriguing because this time, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of parallel in Beck’s personal life to the story related in the album’s lyrics; back in 2002, he’d split with his fiancée and was by all accounts genuinely heartbroken, whereas these days he’s married to Xenu Marissa Ribisi, and has been since 2004.
In this respect, it might not be a surprise that the lyrics deal more with a sort of slow, creeping melancholy than a dramatic heartbreak. The words are sparse but evocative, cataloging lovelorn regret and general despondence, albeit in a slightly different manner from how Beck did a decade ago. As several reviewers have pointed out, there’s something older and wiser about this incarnation of Sad Beck.
“Morning” rather sets the tone, asking, “Can we start it all over again?/ This morning, I’ve lost all my defenses/ This morning, won’t you show me the way it used to be?” Such unanswered questions abound: “Say Goodbye” wonders, “Is it time to go away?/ Try again some other day?,” while penultimate track “Country Down” asks, “What’s the use of being found?” There’s no resolution here, although closing song “Waking Light” does seem to bring the album full circle, returning to morning imagery with a gentle entreaty: “When the memory leaves you/ Somewhere you can’t make it home/ When the morning comes to meet you/ Lay me down in waking light.”
The generally slippery nature of the lyrics works in Beck’s favor here — they mean that the sentiments in Morning Phase are universal enough to invite listening, regardless of their provenance. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that Sad Beck is the only incarnation of Beck that feels like a reflection of the man himself; these albums capture him experiencing an emotion we can all relate to.
It’s interesting to compare his ever-changing image to that of rock’s original shapeshifter, David Bowie — an artist who’s evolved through a similar catalog of incarnations over the years. Bowie’s personae seemed to all be aspects of his personality, blown out into outsize caricatures: the flamboyant performer (Ziggy Stardust), the sartorial egotist (The Thin White Duke), the introverted perfectionist (Berlin Bowie).
By contrast, Beck’s images seem to serve to obscure the man beneath, not illustrate him. There’s been a veneer of irony and postmodernism to his various incarnations, a sense that’s he’s adopting them like you or I might try on thrift store coats. Funky Beck. Loser Beck. Country Beck. None of them told you about the man within. In this respect, he was a perfect pop star for the ’90s, the decade that gave us Friends and Slacker and these.
In this respect, it seemed entirely appropriate that Sea Change came two years into a new millennium, an age when old certainties were pretty much thrown out the window, and people like Graydon Carter started writing earnestly about “the end of the age of irony.” I doubt that Morning Phase will have quite the same cultural resonance — but maybe that doesn’t matter, because one’s personal emotional crises seem less dramatic and more quietly sad as you get older. If you’re having a dark night of doubt and ennui, here’s your soundtrack.