Wish me luck, I’ve never attempted to do a music review before… Deep breath. Ok, here goes. I write this listening to Beck’s most recent studio album, Morning Phase, which came out earlier this year. And I must say I’m rather enjoying it – it is the only Beck album as of yet which features in its entirety on my rather sad little Spotify playlist. Not afraid to say that it sits quite happily alongside Cornflake Girl and Dreadlock Holiday… Hmm… Maybe I should rethink my music choice, but hey, gotta be proud sometimes. What was I talking about?
Now, I have to be frank, I didn’t actually look on this album very fondly when I first encountered it. Having faced a year of Bowie cash-ins and general musical mush I was saddened almost that the Beck I knew and loved from Modern Guilt had reinvented himself once again. And it had taken me some time to get used to his last persona. As a child of the (late) ’90s, I celebrate the fact that I have grown up with the ever-changing and wonderful Beck, even if I am slightly ashamed that I only just found out that he joins Tom Cruise and John Travolta as a renowned scientologist, and sure, would have found it a shame if he were to stop making music. But, let’s put it like this, I haven’t even made 12 blog posts, let alone albums, and I’m sure that even my mother wants to stop reading. In short, I was anxious that it was going to be a let-down.
And, as I said, when I first listened, I was none too impressed. Being my own usual restless, impatient self I am not known for sitting down and taking in a whole album at a time. I find it nigh on impossible. What’s more, the album has a very slow (ok, atmospheric) start with ‘cycle’ which didn’t exactly have me hooked. If you haven’t heard it, think of a string quartet with no sheet music improvising over one chord sequence for exactly forty seconds. Nice, but a bit of a shock if you were expecting something for one so previously grungy he practically invented the genre following the head-start provided by Nirvana. Now, that’s not exactly true, but you know what I mean. I’ll say contributed… Yeah, contributed…
The album didn’t feel like it was on the verge of improving as the first few notes of ‘morning’ rapidly ensued. Harshly played guitar chords with underlying sounds of crashing sea waves. First time I listened to it, I very nearly decided this was the end – it felt way way too slow and I had to wait a whole 35 seconds until Beck himself joined in… Told you I was impacient. Having listened many times following my first attempt, my opinion has progressed and changed, but on first try I just felt I wanted nothing to do with it. It was too mournful, the lyrics made no sense, and it simply didn’t cater to my previous Beck tastes. I couldn’t cope. After trying to listen for another five minutes, still on ‘morning’, I decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want my previous dark and growly perception of Beck (thinking ‘loser’, ‘devil’s haircut’ etc.) to go sullied by this new yogic, relaxing and again, atmospherically sad new individual. So I decided to do an Eternal Sunshine, erased my mind and new opinions and left the album for another three months.
Boy, I must have grown up a lot over those three months. I started to emigrate in music tastes, Lily Allen disappeared off my playlist for a few weeks only to be replaced by Elton John and Paul Simon and in general, my outlook on life, and Beck’s new persona, was drastically altered. I don’t know when it happened, but I decided to listen again. It worked too, I was suddenly hooked. What had previously sounded tinny and insincere had far more depth and meaning than it had before. I wanted to listen and as I did, I only felt that the more I let myself listen, the more I enjoyed it. What on earth could have happened?
Sure, ‘morning’ still thoroughly depressed me, but having got past that and onto ‘heart is a drum’, things started to look up a little. Well, more than a little. Everything started to make a bit of sense. ‘Heart’ had a bit of a beat going for it and reminded me very much of Sea Change, Beck’s eighth studio album. Creepy vocals and bizarre piano over the same harsh sounding guitar. Doesn’t sound very good on paper, does it? But really, truly, to me it sounded very inspired. Success! I was hooked.
So it went on. I was no longer only interested in the strange angle of choice for the cover of the album (Beck has a deliriously amazing nose, just saying) but the music itself. Sure, there were a few duff songs on the way. Wasn’t so keen on ‘wave’ and the odd ethereal interjections dotted throughout, but really, things had changed, and so much for the better.
I think what shined forth for me which I hadn’t had the time or ability to appreciate when I first tried to listen was the sheer simplicity and beauty that is exuded throughout. It does sound like Sea Change and there are reasons for this, mainly I guess, many of the studio musicians of that album returned to record this. Yes, I looked that up. But there are differences. They are hard to pinpoint, but they still exist.
I guess I just feel that Morning Phase is just a far more mature approach to the same concepts and inspiration floating around in Sea Change. Many of the tracks could be interchanged – both ‘guess I’m doing fine’ and ‘the golden age’ amongst others would sit very happily alongside ‘blackbird chain’ and ‘turn away’. But it feels like Beck decided to cut something out from the Sea Change concept in Morning Phase. I’m not quite sure how to put it, but it just feels like it was a far more independent venture. The album can be characterised by what it lacks in this respect. Yes, as I mentioned, there are duff tracks, but it feels as though Beck is a lot more sure of himself and his music and that he doesn’t have to make up for it by covering all bases with random slightly out-of-genre tracks.
In all, I am simply glad that this album was made and that I came back to it. It was completely unexpected – I had no idea that my mind could be changed so drastically. But yes, loathing can be turned to loving and I would be happy to see this album remain on my playlist for many years.
Maybe it’s just the other stuff around it that needs to change, ahem, Fatboy Slim.