Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ steady yet underwhelming


Beck’s music has always seemed strangely impersonal. This quality is particularly unusual, as one would assume that the singer-songwriter genre necessitates openness.

While one would expect an idiosyncratic artist such as Beck to suffer from some insecurities, the artist has never seemed to be the misfit that he represents himself as. Indeed, it is difficult to determine who, precisely, Beck is.

Is he the sardonic outcast of “Odelay?” Is he the pensive loner of “Mutations” and “Sea Change?” Is he the musical shapeshifter of “Guero” and “The Information?” There may not be a single, definitive Beck.

Beck’s most poignant incarnation shines through on his newest release “Morning Phase,” released Feb. 25, which the artist has called a companion album to 2002’s haunting “Sea Change.”

“Morning Phase” is a gently baroque record, exceptionally well-wrought and superbly produced. Meditative and melancholic, the album contrasts with the flippancy and peculiarity typically associated with Beck.

Every song coalesces so seamlessly that the record does not appear to be a collection of distinct songs so much as an extended musical collage, oscillating between quiet acceptance and tempered hope, yet never settling into a single mood. It is a calculated effort, a tour de force in a minor key.

The producer’s vision for “Morning Phase” is realized successfully — the album makes it seem impossible for a better-executed record to be released this year — but this vision plays it too safe for an artist like Beck. The sense of tranquility that permeates each track is less compelling than the soul-rending anguish that prevails on “Sea Change.”

Beck has matured on “Morning Phase,” but this sophistication is not aesthetically satisfying in comparison to the emotional nirvana that usually exists in rock music.

“Morning Phase” instead feels like a reminiscence — pained and fond. An album such as this, which keeps the emotional dial turned to “wistful,” is bound to overstay its welcome in the music mainstream.

The sound is beautiful at fleeting moments, but “Morning Phase” is not nearly as affecting as it should be. The Beck heard on this new album enjoys life much more than the singer with whom fans have become acquainted.

On past albums, however, Beck has proved that he is capable of much more. He has produced projects with the highs, lows and catharses of masterpiece albums like “Mellow Gold,” “Odelay” and arguably even the complex “Sea Change.” It will be exciting to witness the moment when Beck reaches these heights again.

A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 26 print edition. Chris Feldsine is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]