Early reports that Beck’s new album Morning Phase would be a sequel to 2002’s melancholy classic Sea Change sent many fans of sad Beck into a state of delirious excitement. “Blue Moon,” the single released earlier this month, only heightened that sense of anticipation. It begins with Beck declaring “I’m so tired of being alone,” in a tone of hopeful sorrow similar to the Sea Change aesthetic.
But after the album release last Tuesday, Morning Phase revealed itself to be more than just a Sea Change continuation. While the two albums have many similarities, particularly in tempo and in their shared focus of acoustic instruments, they deal with different struggles. Sea Change, at its core, is a breakup album, and it exceptionally explores the types of emotions associated with loss and longing. Morning Phase, on the other hand, challenges the listener to confront the kind of universal loneliness that becomes evident as we age; friends move in and out of our lives, the people and places in our lives change, but ultimately, we remain the same.
Essentially, Morning Phase is an album about growing up.
It starts on a mature and stirring note. In the first song, a string arrangement envelops the listener. It then falls out after thirty seconds, giving way to the simplicity of an acoustic guitar. But that’s not the last we’ve heard of the orchestra. String arrangements play a large role in Morning Phase, particularly on “Unforgiven” and “Wave,” where rich soundscapes are created that, along with the steady, plodding drums, provide a platform for Beck’s distant vocals and guitars to intermingle.
And those are the real stars of this album: Beck and his guitar, who are at the forefront of almost every track. His voice, made to sound airy, distant, and isolated, carries the record. He supplements his strumming with great work on the keyboard and piano that shines on tracks like “Morning” and “Waking Light.” “Say Goodbye” even features mandolin and banjo.
But even with great instrumentation, Morning Phase is mostly characterized by empty spaces. Its consistently lagging tempo isolates each song’s drum hit and the tracks all have moments of void, especially in the contrast between the songs’ background string arrangements and the foreground guitars. There’s also a consistently perceived distance between the listener and Beck’s vocals, which adds to the album’s overall theme of loneliness and its atmosphere of solitude.
Unlike most albums, Morning Phase doesn’t have a few standout tracks and a bunch of filler. A fan might favor “Say Goodbye” and “Don’t Let It Go,” but anyone else could easily pick two others. The album is really a cohesive piece, and needs to be heard in its entirety for the listener to feel the totality of its meaning.
Thinking of Morning Phase as a sequel or companion to Sea Change cheapens what Beck has created. Morning Phase really stands alone as an excellent end-to-end exploration of the loneliness that comes with being alive and human. Any listener who tests this record will be left feeling nostalgic, thinking about the important people who have phased out of his or her life.
Article Ryan Riedmuller