Freaks have made some of the best music in the past 50 years because they do not put an immediate ID tag on themselves. This way they can stick their toes in two or three genres on one album and make it their own sound. While freaks like Prince and David Bowie have been on and off in the past 20 years, the public has come to know a new freak of musical nature: His name is Beck Hansen.
Since he debuted to the masses with his surprise runaway hit “Loser” in 1993, Beck has made a career out of changing his sound, from the stoned-out funk of “Odelay,” to the comedic 70’s throwback of “Midnite Vultures,” and his heartbreaking breakup album “Sea Change.” Many consider that particular album to be Beck’s peak for its sweeping strings, stripped down approach and lyrics showing the Soul Suckin’ Jerk as an emotional wreck. Beck is a musical outlaw in that he has never followed anyone beside himself on what he wants to put on a record, which is why it becomes a trending story when he announces a new album. Six years have passed since his last studio album, the Danger Mouse-produced mid-life crisis party “Modern Guilt,” so how does Beck present himself today: as the jester, the elder or the wanderer?
“Morning Phase” sees Beck as the wanderer, finding the bad in the good surrounding him. “Morning,” with its xylophone, mellow acoustic guitar and Beck’s beautiful echoing vocals, see him finding “roses full of thorns” and his weary soul “gone all around / Til there’s nothing left to say.” He is lonely, sad and wants someone to join him in isolation. Many of the 13 tracks here are either a statement of loneliness or love letters to the introverts out in the world. Beck is hurting in his solitude, as evidenced from “Say Goodbye” (“Bones crack / Curtains drawn / On my back / And the sheet is gone … I will wait / Take a turn / Sort it out / Let it burn”). “Unforgiven,” with its spare piano, bass and drumbeat, is Beck driving away from the party “into the afterglow / Somewhere unforgiven … Just let the engine run / Til there’s nothing left / Except the damage done.” Beck’s lyrics are so honest and bleak here that you feel like calling 911 just to make sure he is not at the edge of a cliff himself. He’s not having marital trouble like on “Sea Change,” so why exactly is he so down?
Regardless of his feelings, Beck has never made a bummer of a time sound so breathtaking. With string sections orchestrated by his father, David Campbell (who also arranged the strings on “Mutations” and “Sea Change”) and instruments that fade more than shake, Beck creates an ambient atmosphere for listeners to lose themselves in. It’s as if you’re on the shore with Beck, looking out onto the horizon watching the sun come up after seeing your best friends start families while you are still that guy by the bar playing with his cocktail napkin. The album’s first single, “Blue Moon,” begs that you “Don’t leave me on my own” after opening with “I’m so tired of being alone.” He mopes, but it sounds sincere instead of needy. He uses his talent of genre-splicing to merge Beach Boys-like background harmonies with folk-rock acoustic guitar. He never freaks out into a solo or shows off his oddball humor, but is just quietly waiting for something to move him forward since he has no intention of going on.
“Wave” is Beck reminding himself of who he is on the inside, a man that drifts “into the world / Like some tiny distortion.” He concludes that “if I surrender / And don’t fight this wave / I won’t go under / I’ll only get carried away,” but what exactly is carrying Beck away? Today’s culture? His musical ambition? Is the pressure of being “Where It’s At” closing in on him? He does not address a specific problem on “Morning Phase,” but creates a cinematic landscape for an introvert to wander. Maybe that’s the point of “Morning Phase,” in that this is the soundtrack for those lost in the bustle of the world. “Sea Change” was for the heartbroken; now “Morning Phase” is for those with the weight of the world making their backs break. Whether that be the case or not, Beck has come into 2014 with one heck of a whisper.