In 2012 Beck embraced the digital age by releasing Song Reader as sheet music, which were it not such an elegant move, smacks a little Luddite. Not that technology is expected from the Canadian, after all, his folky, hip-hop spontaneity is what drew fans to him in the first place. So for those unable to read music, Morning Phase is his first album since 2008’s Danger Mouse produced Modern Guilt, and marks another shift in record label. It’s the first release from a backlog of material that Beck promises will include collaborations later this year, presumably with Pharrell Williams, who’s worked with everyone but Elvis, although I wouldn’t even out that out of his reach.
From the gathering strings of Morning, to the taut Heart is a Drum, it’s clear that Beck has found his songwriting stride, as have the band that rejoin him from 2002’s Sea Change; despite Nigel Godrich missing from the production chair, it’s a return to its laid back grooves. Morning Phase was recorded in Nashville, and shows. Beck has seldom captured so much with so little. The ghosts of Bob Dylan and Nick Drake remain present and correct, but it’s the quality of the songs that most impress.
The country space-rock of his Mutations album coats the electro echo of Unforgiven, but it’s the strings, (arranged by his father apparently), that runs this album through. The harmonies and scattered electronics of the swooping Blue Moon, walk the tightrope, never falling into self-pity, feels utterly assured, and typifies the wide-eyed sense of awakening that prevails throughout. It isn’t a concept album as such, but the whisper of positivity never leaves your side. You can hear leaves catching the wind, the rattle of the closing window; Waking Light even echoes the fragility of U2’s One.
These are songs from an older, wiser voice. He sounds confident that things will be ok, and it’s hard not to believe him. As he sings: ‘when the morning comes to meet you/ lay me down in waking light. It’s the older brother Sea Change never knew it had.
This review first appeared in Classic Pop magazine September 2014