Let’s get this part out of the way: Beck aficionados will not be able to listen to his new album Morning Phase without immediately associating it with 2002’s Sea Change. They are cut from the same cloth: slow-paced, highly introspective, somber, hangover-infused songs with an appropriate tip-of-the-hat style-wise to Laurel Canyon and Neil Young. The two records are sisters in that they sound very like each other, and very different from the rest of Beck’s discography. Two pauses, two opportunities to take a breath. (They both even feature string arrangements by Beck’s father, David Campbell.)
The biggest difference between the two is in the level of maturity. With Sea Change, Beck was a 31-year-old artist processing a bitter breakup. With Morning Phase, he is a husband and father, older, wiser, reflecting on the world (though his viewpoint of it is still a bit stark). It might be a matter of taste, but in my view, the sequel is richer than the original, like wine that improves with age.
Because of its down-tempo pace, the album works best when played as a whole, preferably on a cold or rainy day. But that isn’t to say there aren’t some standout moments. The tone is set in the first few seconds with the opening lush strings of “Cycle”, which then give way to “Morning,” immediately (and no doubt purposefully) reflecting “The Golden Age,” which is the opening tune on Sea Change—same tempo, same sound, same key, very similar chord progressions. The following tunes place the listener into a semi-melancholy reverie until the cinematic strings resurface in “Wave.” A couple of songs later, our attention is arrested with “Blackbird Chain,” which for me is the standout song on the album. It’s still mellow, still understated, but somehow has an anthemic quality, as though Beck is saying, “If you don’t pay attention to any other song on this record, pay attention to this one.”
Given the fact that for years Sea Change has stood as something of an anomaly among Beck’s work, it might seem odd for him to do an album that is such an obvious follow-up to it. Yet, somehow, it works. We haven’t heard new material from Beck since 2008’s Modern Guilt, but for some reason, this “pause” makes sense. Those who didn’t care much for the first pause probably won’t care much for this one, but die-hard fans, Morning Phase is likely to become another classic.