While this record hardly marked a sea change from what he’d done before, it is an undeniably beautiful collection of songs. When Beck is in his downbeat, reflective mode, he’s hard to beat. As tempting as it is to keep making atrocious jokes referencing the 2002 album on which he covered similar ground – ‘Morning’ sounds exactly like his golden age, in fact it sounds pretty similar to ‘The Golden Age’ and so on – let’s at least try to take this one on its own merits. As much as I love artists to evolve, if something they were doing made me love them in the first place, I’m not going to object to them doing a bit more of it. Beck gently eased himself back into releasing music with three enormously long singles after several years spent wondering if he would perform again following a back injury during a video shoot. With murmurs of another album, at least, being already in the can, ‘Morning Phase’ was talked up as the logical successor to its twelve year old brother. It is, but not without some gorgeous songwriting, playing and production to help it on its way.
Slurred washes of sound and manipulated bursts of backing vocals are dotted across the record, not least on ‘Heart Is A Drum’, which sets the bar exceptionally, and reassuringly, high early on and has an emphatic, dominant piano line that weaves around the latter stages that will melt your heart. As with so many albums tagged as being ‘downbeat’, this one actually works perfectly in the brightest sunshine. As I write this now, the light is pouring in through the window and I am beaming. Dour simply does not mean depressing. Take ‘Wave’, which has grandiose, ominous strings and a funereal pace. Hansen’s voice seems to be being beamed in from the after-life, stating that “if I surrender and I don’t fight this wave, I won’t go under; I’ll only be carried away.” It’s haunting and claustrophobic, but it makes for a fascinating centrepiece of the album and it’s a track I’ve come back to time and again.
“Yes, yes, but he’s done this before, I hear you cry.” Well, may I politely suggest you shut the hell up? “Oh, Connie and John, don’t write a second series of Fawlty Towers. You did it so well the first time.” Oh, Edward, don’t write another Patrick Melrose novel. I don’t imagine the fourth one will actually turn out to be the best.” “Oh, Damon, don’t bother with another collection of England-centric indie-pop. ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ will suffice.” Yep, if you tedious bastards were in charge we’d blink and miss everything good. If ‘Morning Phase’ was a shite retread done for cash, I could understand the frustration, but with the original musicians rounded up and some excellent songs in tow, could I suggest we all just sit down and listen?
If you need convincing, ‘Blackbird Chain’ remains a firm favourite, with the country twangs that drew me in on ‘Mutations’ in full effect, and a lovely, lolloping melody for the verses that feels like a musical massage. It’s another track on which the piano is magical and the strings ebb and flow to glistening effect. This is a release where the vinyl edition has been done especially well and, as it happens, on the very day we moved all of our stuff into our new house, I arrived to find a Royal Mail ‘We Have Something For You’ card on the doormat, having been left less than ten minutes previous. Leaving my wife and in-laws a little perplexed, I pegged it off round the corner, only to return soon thereafter clutching a cardboard packet in which sat my copy of ‘Morning Phase’. It seemed a fitting way for our new postie to get to know me and, once the turntable was finally reestablished, a beautiful way to christen the house in the fading spring light. I’ve yet to lose interest.