When Beck walked out on stage at the State Theatre in Sydney two years ago, he did something unusual: he played ‘Loser’. Then he played ‘Devil’s Haircut’. Two songs not less than 16 years old, released at the height of “alternative rock”, played up front. A lot of bands act coy when it comes to playing the songs that introduced them to the mainstream (see Radiohead’s famous reluctance to play ‘Creep’) — they bury them deep in the setlist, or they play an acoustic arrangement, or they don’t play them at all. But here was Beck, opening his set with enthusiastic renditions of two mid-‘90s hits back-to-back. It felt like an undeserved treat: shouldn’t we really have to sit through a half dozen album tracks before he plays the ol’ favourites?
There’s a kind of old-school showbiz grit to that approach. Give people what they want! Speak to your audience! The challenge, really, is to do it without being hokey — and that’s the real key to Beck’s new album, Morning Phase. It’s been widely described, even in Beck’s own press release, as a sort of companion piece to 2002’s Sea Change, the album that topped a stack of end-of-year critics’ lists and earned Rolling Stone magazine’s second ever five-star rating on its release. A lot of artists hate having new work compared to old — even if that work’s as beloved as Sea Change — for the inferences that spring from the comparison. Why haven’t they “progressed”? If they took a different direction, did it fail? Have they stagnated?
Beck, on the other hand, seems completely at ease with the comparison. And there are good reasons for why.
Sea Change was born out of a particular set of circumstances. It was wildly different to the records that preceded it, which leapt from sleazy ‘80s funk to hip-hop pastiche and folk. It was famously written following the end of a nine-year relationship. These factoids were repeated so often at the time it came out that it seems almost pointless to repeat them here, but it’s worth noting how much Sea Change resonated with people for those very reasons.
It’s an album that, sonically, has dated far better than some others in Beck’s back catalogue; in the intervening 12 years, it’s also established itself as something of a modern break-up classic. It’s a feel that’s stamped all over Morning Phase, with which the comparisons run deep: the melancholic, dreamy mood; the West Coast rock production aesthetic; the musicians and engineers; even the colour palette of the two records’ cover art.
Morning Phase was also preceded by an eclectic set of releases, including 2012’s Song Reader, issued only in sheet music form, and the psyche-y Modern Guilt. It too is the result of a cathartic creation process; Sea Change’s meandering pace and hushed vocals were identifiably the sound of an artist working through a break-up, but that kind of heartache isn’t the only possible catalyst for raw, emotive balladry. On Morning Phase, it was a back injury Beck sustained sometime before the release of Modern Guilt that affected him so profoundly it became hard to even make music. He told America’s NPR, “I had these injuries for years and years, and had this certain guitar that was really hard for me to play, so this was the first time I could play the guitar again in probably seven, eight years” — no doubt a debilitating condition, both physically and psychologically, for a professional musician.
In making the new album, Beck recreated the cathartic recording environment of Sea Change. That record didn’t come out easy: most of its songs were written in a few days in 2000, after the revelation that Beck’s partner of nine years had cheated on him, but it took another two years before they saw a release. Initially, Beck was reluctant to put them to tape. The stripped back, emotionally sincere ballads were a stark contrast to the outrageous funk of previous album Midnite Vultures, and songs like ‘Lost Cause’ and ‘Lonesome Tears’ exhibited him at his most vulnerable: “Lonesome tears / I can’t cry them anymore / I can’t think of what they’re for”, he sings on the latter. But with the help of producer Nigel Godrich and Beck’s composer father, David Campbell, the album was finally released — so it makes sense that, for that album’s spiritual successor, they’d get called up again.
It happened in early 2013. Recording with the Sea Change band — Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Joey Waronker, Smokey Hormel, Roger Joseph Manning Jr, and Jason Falkner, as well as Godrich and Campbell — began in Nashville and continued through LA, in the same Ocean Way studios Sea Change was made, and on to Paris and London. Beck’s described those sessions as a vastly more enjoyable experience than the last time he entered the studio, for 2008’s Modern Guilt: “Some of the songs on the new record – I get to shout and yell. I’m like, ‘Thank you!'” he told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. “I had a lot of ideas and things I’d been wanting to do. This last year and a half, I feel like I can really do them.” It’s a frame of mind that’s evident in the sound of Morning Phase: it’s direct and simple. Beck’s vocals are strong and clean, mostly unharmonised. The instrumentation is sparse and roomy; flourishes like strings and mandolin never crowd the songs — and on cuts like ‘Blue Moon’, recorded in a single take, the band seems to step aside as Beck howls his verses.
It’s the deft performances and intimate lyrics that make Morning Phase seem less like a simple replication of a previous success, and more of a regathering of strength. Beck says he felt a new freedom from the pressure to produce a particular aesthetic, as he did on Modern Guilt and The Information. For Morning Phase, “the sessions were just me, and whatever engineer I could get,” he told The New Yorker. “There was no producer other than me. I just had my band. It was a lone endeavour.” It’s an aesthetic companion to Sea Change; both albums share an ache, a sense of weariness, a philosophical attitude to the past that offers many paths forward. Yet in other ways, the important ways, it’s a step forward from that great record: warm, optimistic and muscular, despite its laidback exterior. In the spirit of the Beck live experience, it’s generous and enjoyable, sentimental but sincere. It’s aware of the successes of the past and never too cool to revisit them.
Beck’s an artist who’s made a career of reinventing himself album after album — but on Morning Phase, his greatest innovation is embracing what came before.
Morning Phase drops this Friday February 21. It is currently streaming via The Australian.
Max Lavergne is a writer from Sydney. His writing is very special and will live forever. Follow him on Twitter @maxlavergne