“I Don’t Understand”: On Beck’s ‘Morning Phase,’ Los Angeles and Shake Shack

02.28.14 4 years ago 17 Comments

Beck Morning Phase Cover

When I was younger, there was a used bookstore in the Bethel Road strip mall in Columbus, Ohio. I can’t remember the name. My mother took me there infrequently when we were in the area. I can’t remember much about our visits. What I do remember is my mother generally perused the selection of dime novels that were actually a dime, and I piddled away the time by browsing the store’s used CDs because I was a teenager and f*ck reading.

On one visit I persuaded her to buy me an album. Its case was slightly splintered and cracked and featured a man with a mop cut and a melange of colors swirling around his head. That album ended up being Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change, and I picked it up because it looked interesting and “Loser” was something I knew of. I snapped the CD into my Sony Walkman and hit play.

I didn’t understand Beck, and it took me until college to really get into him. To this day I still don’t understand the man, and I actually enjoy his music*. If you’re of the ilk to sift through music journalism and criticism, this is supposed to be your frame of reference when tackling any Beck record: you kind of just roll with whatever he does because usually it’s good. Beck grew up in predominantly minority neighborhoods in Los Angeles, consumed everything from folk rock to jazz and Hip-Hop, and even had a particular penchant for church and gospel hymns because of his Midwestern minister grandfather. He’s unique.

His most recent release, Morning Phase, his first quote-un-quote album since 2008, isn’t as far into left field as we’ve come to expect, but it’s grand and oftentimes gorgeous. Or it’s “shallow,” if you’re Grantland’s Steve Hyden. Morning Phase can be cut numerous ways, none of which I find very compelling to dive into, but that’s probably the point.

Because, in the end, you don’t understand sh*t.

Beck Amsterdam 1996

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This section was supposed to be about California.

I recently spent four days in Los Angeles, visiting friends, splitting time between constantly foggy Venice and the drier, more patchwork east side around Silver Lake and Echo Park. I figured the location would eventually lend to this column because it seemed that to better understand Beck would require grokking his haunts.

Unfortunately, mapping out structural details doesn’t necessarily lend to discovering anything. Morning Phase, after repeated listening in both New York and Southern California, in staid airport terminals and crawling along the Santa Monica Freeway, is the same damn thing every time. The opening strings of “Cycle” that give way to the quietly beautiful “Morning,” are always beautiful, and the delicately plucked and folksy “Say Goodbye” always sounds slightly ominous. The particular listening setting really plays no part here.

Which in an odd way is a sort of blessing. Beck’s Los Angelino roots always seem to be referenced whenever people write about him, including in several press pieces about Morning Phase. Morning Phase is certainly a beautiful-sounding record, but its own beauty should remain free from any sort of contextual lynchpin. The “Morning Phase is [insert Los Angeles landmark here]” and “Morning Phase sounds like [insert Southern Californian stereotype here]” cheapens the LP, and detracts from the simple fact that tracks like “Blackbird Chain” and “Heart Like A Drum” just sound pleasing.

Take it from someone who tried.

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This section is about New York and the few things I do understand.

Shake Shack is grossly overrated. It’s also incredibly expensive for the half-dollar-sized (or what seems like) fast-food burger you receive for $7. Upon hitting the tarmac at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank last Thursday evening, my friend Chelsea and I gunned it down the 101 to the In-N-Out Burger off Sunset, where I received a Double-Double, fries and a strawberry shake for the price of one Shake Shack burger.

I’m not here to milk the proverbial In-N-Out Burger hype tit, but the West Coast burgers-and-shakes chain takes a massive, protein-infused sh*t all over New York City’s, because whenever New York City tries to do something “Middle American” like a burger joint, it dresses it up in Bloombergian frills and pretension fit for a Citi bike-toting Euro.

F*ck that. It’s one of the few things in this city I understand but don’t subscribe to.

It’s sort of like how I don’t get the idea that critiquing an album’s worth is solely dependent upon what an artist says through lyrics. It’s never really appealed to me, and it’s definitely not something I’d even consider when breaking down Morning Phase.

Sure, there’s not a lot to work with here in the first place. Morning Phase‘s lyrics work in small, distilled, often aloof pieces of phrases that typically hide behind the album’s instrumentation. “Heart Is A Drum” glides along Beck’s constant use of the word “beat,” and “Wave” fades into oblivion on the word “isolation.” And when Beck does open up, it’s still boiled down and direct like, “guns are falling/They don’t have nowhere to go” (off “Morning”).

I guess this sort of song writing could suggest a bunch of stuff, but I don’t think lyrics have ever really been Beck’s m.o. We are talking about a man who’s first hit single built itself on the hook of “I am a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me.” Beck is, as New York‘s Jody Rosen mentioned, “most at ease when making music about music,” which I agree with. You can’t break him down outside what you hear on wax, nor should you, making my ability to actually “get” the guy when I was younger sort of a lost cause**. Morning Phase is what it is: an expertly orchestrated album whose words jive as background noise to the “feels” the music’s supposed to evoke.

Because there’s nothing to get, nothing to understand. Only something to hear.

* — Throw me into the Odelay camp of which Beck album I enjoy most.

** — Admittedly, Sea Change is probably Beck’s most straight-forward album since it was a “break-up record.”

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