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Why Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ Is Already Among the Best Albums of 2014

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(Peter Hapak/ Columbia Records)

(Peter Hapak/ Columbia Records)

By Scott T. Sterling

Last night (Nov. 25), Capitol Records head Dan McCarroll presided over approximately 100 or so people gathered in Studio A of the label’s legendary Los Angeles building to listen to Beck’s new album Morning Phase, scheduled for release this February. The follow-up to 2008’s Modern Guilt, Morning Phase is also Beck’s first for the iconic label, in line more with Capitol’s classic catalogue than its current pop moneymaker, Katy Perry.

For the album, Beck reunited the core players from his beloved 2002 album, Sea Change – Smokey Hormel, Justin Meldal-Johnson, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Joey Waronker – with the inspiration of making something “coming out of a California tradition,” as he told Rolling Stone recently. “I’m hearing the Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Gram Parsons, Neil Young – the bigger idea of what that sound is to me.”

Listening to the playback of the album, what we heard was all of that and more. While Beck has been quick to dismiss the notion that the new album is a sequel to Sea Change, Morning Phase does strike a similar mood throughout, rich with multi-tracked harmonies and warm, detailed melodies.

It’s easy to imagine Morning Phase hitting a new generation with the same impact that Sea Change galvanized listeners more than a decade ago. It’s the sound of surviving that tumultuous heartbreak, and being able to look back on it with more fondness than regret, older, wiser and through the forgiving patina of time.

Opening song “Morning” sets the album’s deep, languid mood, with Beck intoning, Woke up this morning/ From a long night in the storm,” over rich acoustic guitars and a patient rhythm.

The album is cloaked in a mood both rustic and luxurious, with an astounding attention to detail in the mix, an ideal soundtrack to Beck’s tales of “getting through that long, dark night of the soul – whatever you want to call it,” as he said in the same Rolling Stone interview. “These songs were about coming out of that – how things do get better.”

Beck’s father, David Campbell, reprises his Sea Change role in handling brass and string arrangements on Morning Phase, most beautifully evident with the orchestral swells of the song “Wave,” which invokes thoughts of Bjork in its emotional intimacy.

While maintaining a consistent mood, Beck is still able to touch on a wide variety of sounds across Morning Phase. “Blackbird Chain” is the sort of breezy, mid-‘70s country-rock that once ruled the FM airwaves and album charts, while “Unforgiven” boasts heavy synths akin to UK alt-R&B crooner James Blake over a stark beat worthy of Portishead. The grandeur of “Waking Light” even conjured images of classic Pink Floyd.

When Capitol Music Group CEO and chairman Steve Barnett announced that the album was over and introduced Beck himself to the audience, it felt abrupt, given the record’s relaxed and engaging atmosphere that leaves listeners genuinely craving more. Somehow, he was able to cram so much emotion and musical inspiration into a surprisingly economical collection. With Morning Phase, Beck makes every note count.

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