Morning Phase, Beck’s 12th album, has been hailed as a sequel to his meditative 2002 milestone, Sea Change, a claim the singer-songwriter himself supports. And although the title suggests “mourning,” Morning Phase evokes dawn and new beginnings more than endings. Yes, this slow and gentle work recalls Sea Change, but this time, Beck’s sense of loss is tempered by sunshine, and Morning Phase feels as radiant as it does somber.
“Can we start it all over again?” he asks in the opener “Morning,” and the album represents a new beginning for Beck in more ways than one. After completing his previous recording contract with 2008′s Modern Guilt, he suffered writer’s block and a severe spinal injury. “This morning I lost all my defenses,” a choir of overdubbed Becks declares as the music surges, the spare, folky sound decorated with sumptuous details that evoke ’70s album-rock splendor. Sea Change recreated the drama of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson a little too closely at times, but Morning Phase‘s antecedents — the slow, steady drift of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the warmth of the Beach Boys, the wistfulness of Nick Drake — are rendered with more nuance.
Morning Phase is delicate, yet not all subtle. Beck reigns in his tendency to distance himself from his own material, and the melodies, along with their thickly harmonic renderings by many of the same musicians who supported him on Sea Change (including his own dad, string arranger David Campbell) are dazzlingly strong, earnest and assured, as if this time around, they couldn’t be any other way.
The songs may be sad, but there is too much vitality dancing through them for the result to feel depressed. Beck summons such a cascade of hooks that the stately tempos feel faster than they are, and the result is both invigorating and pleading. Morning Phase has the intensity and discipline of an instant classic, as if Beck tapped into the pain of his injury and the fear of encroaching irrelevance that all veteran musicians face and summoned something immediate and timeless all at once.