“YOU CAN ONLY COME to the morning through shadows”, observed J.R.R. Tolkein, and inevitably the world looks different when we arrive back. Beck Hansen’s introspective, little epiphany-laden twelfth album is wonderfully alive to the way the day’s tender hours can flip our perceptions, or re-boot our mental state. Whether we awake refreshed or in a sleep-dazed fug, Beck knows, certain questions tend to nag. What happened yesterday and how should I process it? Where am I currently stationed in this thing we call life? Morning can be a time of reckoning (Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down), reluctant come-to (Lennon’s I’m Only Sleeping), even spiritual renewal through sheer wonderment (Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken). There are shades of all of these morning moods on Morning Phase, an album whose 13 songs are all set around dawn. At root, though, the record personifies daybreak as a benevolent force escorting us back to equilibrium. “There’s this feeling of tumult and uncertainty,” Beck recently told MOJO contributor David Fricke, “[of] getting through that long, dark night of the soul. These songs were about coming out of that - how things do get better.”
While Beck’s esteemed 2002 album Sea Change, a record of similar sonics and emotional heft to Morning Phase, was widely seen as a heartbroken response to his break-up with designer Leigh Limon, the singer has yet to elucidate on what’s been keeping him awake more recently.
"Morning Phase is wonderfully alive to the way the day’s tender hours can flip our minds."
With this record partly viewing the world from a body recumbent, however, the unspecified accident that did for Beck’s back shortly before he made his last album, 2008’s Modern Guilt, seems pertinent even now. “I had severe damage to my spine, but now it’s improving… it was a long, long recovery”, he told Argentina’s Página/12 in November. The newspaper’s scoop, gained some five years after Beck’s injury, goes some way towards explaining Morning Phase’s long and intermittent gestation.
Several of the album’s songs seem to portray a man wearied by his own racing mind. There’s Turn Away, a starkly beautiful folk song that advocates severance from solipsistic thought and has shades of Paul Simon’s The Sound Of Silence. There’s also Waking Light, a devastating, piano-led epic that moves at cloud-speed, climaxes with a spectacularly frazzled guitar solo, and sounds like an instance of an artist actually realising the seeming pipe dream of his imagination. “When the memory leads you / Somewhere you can’t make it home,” sings Beck, riding the coat-tails of a capacious reverb, “When the morning comes to meet you / Rest your eyes in waking light.”
Morning Phase isn’t an album that obsequiously courts your approval - it just is. Expansive and often undertaken at tempos that would scarcely have taxed late giant tortoise of The Galapagos, Lonesome George, it sometimes feints at psychedelia, but also has bucolic and cosmic country elements.
Beck has said that his latest is “California music”, but to these ears this needs some qualifying. While Country Down, with its pedal steel and choice harmonica, has shades of Gram Parsons, and the acoustic guitar on Say Goodbye rolls like that of Neil Young’s Old Man, this is certainly not a work evoking the gregarious and ebullient sunshine state of pop lore. Instead, we visit a rather more mysterious and shadowy place where “mountains roll by like centuries” and we’re “down in the cancelled Avalon”. Even the record’s lightest moment - the exquisite, cleverly modulating Blackbird Chain - touches upon the dark ’60s chamber pop of Arthur Lee’s Love.
Meanwhile, the music of Heart Is A Drum - another cracker with a skipping acoustic guitar riff, upright piano and woozy, swelling textures of unfathomable providence - conjures Nick Drake looking out upon rainy Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire rather than a coastal drive in Big Sur. “I need to find someone / To show me how to play it slow / And just let it go,” sings Beck. Again, there’s a search for stillness, peace of mind.
Several key musicians from Sea Change rejoin Beck here: bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Manning Jr. and drummer Joey Waronker among them. These seasoned sessioneers by now roll like a latter-day Wrecking Crew, but Waronker, who brings tremendous poise to the album’s foot-dragging tempos, deserves special mention.
“It’s reassuring that Beck Hansen can still pull an original record out of the hat.”
But the real star-turn excluding Beck himself is the singer’s father, David Campbell. Another of the Sea Change returnees, he brings gravitas-rich brass and string arrangements that seem tectonic in scale. The vertiginous swells on instrumental segue String Interlude 1 exert a tidal pull on the listener, and then there is Waves, the strings-and-vocals-only affair that Beck recently premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, his father conducting. The song has something of Scott Walker’s disquieted elegance, Beck averring “If I surrender / And I don’t fight this wave / I won’t go under / I will only be carried away.”
Morning Phase is Beck’s first album for his new label, Capitol (Virgin in the UK). It hasn’t come out of a vacuum, of course, but engrossing and/or thrillingly outlandish as some of the singer’s recent conceits have been - his yodelling-inclusive take on Bowie’s Sound And Vision arranged for 167-piece orchestra and choir comes to mind - he has seemed somewhat rudder-less of late.
His On-Line Record Club’s re-recordings of songs by INXS and Leonard Cohen were great fun and all that, but it’s reassuring that Beck Hansen can still pull an original record as substantive and absorbing as this one out of the hat. “The early morning has gold in its mouth,” noted Benjamin Franklin, and so, too, does Morning Phase.
Listen to Blue Moon here:
And Waking Light: