Album review: Beck’s melancholy, gorgeous ‘Morning Phase’

Beck hasn”t been particularly prolific lately when it comes to new studio music.  Sure, he”s been busy recording cover albums, producing artists like Thurston Moore and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and collaborating with McSweeney”s on the “Song Reader” sheet-music project, but it”s been more than five years since the release of 2008″s “Modern Guilt.” That break ends tomorrow (24)  with “Morning Phase” tomorrow.

The album has been tagged a sequel of sorts to Beck”s popular break-up album, 2002″s “Sea Change.” Rather than a true sequel, that descriptor is more useful as shorthand to let the listener know the album is primarily acoustic; song-oriented rather than beats oriented, and confessional. And, like “Sea Change,” regardless of what else Beck records, it will stand out as a gorgeous milestone in his career.

“Morning Phase” is an immersive experience that doesn”t lend itself to parsing individual tracks. It”s meant to be heard as a whole as each song unfolds and builds on what has come before it.  Parts of it are achingly beautiful, such as the swelling strings that greet the listener on “Cycle,” a short prelude that gives way to the acoustic guitars of “Morning,” during which he lets us know he sees the “roses full of thorns.” And we”re off.

Though there are glimpses of happiness, for the most part, “Morning Phase” is full of introspective, often melancholy lyrics. But the lyrics are secondary to the overall feel of the album. Just as this is an album that demands to be listened to as a whole work, this is a project that you let surround you in its totality rather than trying to separate any of the parts.

Beck”s delivery is often monotone and at times he almost drones, but it”s in service of the music as his voice blends in with the instrumentation, always riding with the current, never fighting it.  His vocals are processed here and often doubled, but instead of stripping it of its humanity, as so often occurs, the effects add a certain mystical appeal. Having said that, when Beck drops the processing and lets his voice stand front and center,  such as on much of “Say Goodbye,” “Don”t Let It Go”  “Blackbird Chain,” and “Country Down,” it”s a reminder of how emotion-filled his voice can be, even if his range is fairly limited.

Recorded in Nashville, London, Los Angeles, and New York, and with the core of the musicians who recorded “Sea Change”-bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, guitarist Smoky Hormel, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (shout out here for Manning”s previous incarnation in the great power pop band Jellyfish), and drummer Joey Waronker- “Morning Phase” has a calm to it that feels centered and deliberate. Beck told the Los Angeles Times that he listened to each song 6,000  or 7,000 times to make sure he had them right.  That”s probably hyperbolic, but the beauty is the album doesn”t sound overworked or over crafted, it sounds just right.

Beck”s influences show all over the album, whether it”s Alan Parsons Project for its spacey airiness; Pink Floyd for the layered atmospheric density (and sometime detachment), Simon & Garfunkel for the acoustic song craft on such songs like “Turn Away,” or, of course, The Beatles (“Blackbird Chain”) and The Beach Boys for the sonics.  In fact, as I listened to “Blue Moon, I found myself wondering what Brian Wilson would think of the complete, insular world Beck has created here for which Wilson is so well known.

There are no sharp musical edges here and most of the songs ease from one dreamy turn into the next. Plus, the tunes are overwhelmingly mid-tempo, but that seems by design, as the instrumentation is what separates them, whether it”s the twangy guitars on The Band-like “Country Down,” the propulsive (in comparison) “Heart Is A Drum,” or, most notably, on slow motion, druggy “Wave,” with the string parts arranged and conducted by Beck”s father, composer David Campbell.

Like many of the songs here, the lyrics are elliptical, but “Wave” feels like its emotional center, its metamorphosis.  As the strings swell and Beck sings the word “isolation” over and over, it”s as if something breaks wide open as the album moves into its second half.

The album closes with the gentle, blooming “Waking Light.” It”s possible to see the album as taking place in one 24-hour period: We start with “Morning,” and as we go through all the ramifications that the day brings, the album closes with the dawn of a new day, full of its own promise.

This is the first great album of 2014 and it”s meant to be savored. Put on the headphones, lock out the rest of the world for 47 minutes, and let it envelope you. You won”t regret it. For the rest of today, you can still stream it at NPR.