The idea that Morning Phase is a “companion piece of sorts”—to quote directly from a press release—to Beck’s 2002 album, Sea Change, is a nice way of saying he’s decided to re-explore the same musical terrain more than a decade later. For those enamored of Beck at his saddest, it’s a welcome return: Sea Change and now Morning Phase find the songwriter in fully serious mode—the Beck of “Loser” and “Deborah” doesn’t seem to inhabit this same skin. Heading back to the darkness was a smart move, since Beck’s last album (2008’s Modern Guilt), while not without its moments, was ultimately pretty forgettable. In fact, he recently told Rolling Stone that Guilt was recorded while he was in a tremendous amount of back pain, which felt like a dismissal.
So just how similar is Morning Phase to Sea Change? “Morning,” which opens Phase (after a short ambient intro called “Cycle”), sounds so much like Change’s lead-off track, “The Golden Age,” even squinting ears won’t know the difference—at least not right away. The risk here, though, is that Beck is inviting an apples-to-apples comparison with his second most critically adored album—The A.V. Club’s 24th best of its decade—and Phase can’t possibly win in that competition, not with time and first-out-of-the-gate status on Sea Change’s side. And yet Morning Phase succeeds just the same. It’s not as good as Sea Change, but that it’s anywhere close—and it is—means it’s doing something right.
If Sea Change was the entrance to a long, dark tunnel—reportedly the fruit of a bad breakup—then Morning Phase might be the point at which light is finally starting to show itself, at least musically. Lyrically, Beck is still deeply in the dumps: “Say Goodbye,” which is both the most traditional-sounding and the best song here, finds him talking about cracked bones and empty drawers, while “Heart Is A Drum” describes his blood-pumping organ as the thing that’s “beating me down, day after day.” Neither dives as deep as the cinematic “Wave,” which pairs Beck’s distinctive deep voice with just an orchestra, and ends with him repeating the word “isolation” over and over. But it’s not just wallowing—it’s warmly, gorgeously cathartic.
And the album is not all Bummertown: “Blue Moon” is Dylan-esque, and “Blackbird Chain” addresses the California sound that Beck also claims to be chasing on Morning Phase. Album-ender “Waking Light” even makes a vague attempt to praise dawn’s early light, suggesting that Beck might’ve worked his way through some shit here, just as he clearly did a decade ago.