The musical magpie adds majestic bleakness to classic Laurel Canyon folk rock on his 12th album
At some point in the six years that have elapsed since the release of Beck’s 2008 album ‘Modern Guilt’, the inveterate musical shape-shifter has finally relaxed into a stereotype. The Los Angeles native has long flirted with the idea of the hippyish singer-songwriter, the long-haired troubadour penning harmony-laden folk-rock tunes from his house in Laurel Canyon. On this, his 12th album, he finally succumbs wholly to that soaring, swooning late ’60s and early ’70s sound, as typified by The Byrds, The Mamas & The Papas and Neil Young. But Beck being Beck, he adds an idiosyncratic twist in the shape of a majestic bleakness that hangs over the album’s portentous 13 tracks like a funeral veil. That’s not to say there aren’t optimistic moments, but if you feel like locking yourself in a dark room and sobbing at any point during your listening experience, well, no-one would blame you.
Touted as his ‘acoustic’ album, ‘Morning Phase’ is rather more symphonic than such a reductive description would have you believe. After the sweet orchestral swell of the 39-second opener ‘Cycle’, we drift into the lush ‘Morning’. With simple strumming laid over delicate drums that roll like Pacific waves, it’s a breezy, slow-paced nod to the oceanic swells of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s all too brief solo career. Here the sadness comes as subtle shoreside melancholy, with Beck plaintively cooing, “This morning/I let down all my defences”.
With his emotions on the line, in comes the softly psychedelic ‘Heart Is A Drum’, its shimmering instrumentation and heartworn harmonies straight from the lungs of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Twanging California guitars and a Gram Parsons lilt briefly lift the mood for ‘Say Goodbye’ and ‘Country Down’. Lead single ‘Blue Moon’ could be one of the most captivating things Beck has ever composed – a woozy bluegrass lament, spiralling around desperate calls of “Don’t leave me on my own”. The glumness is almost transcendental by the time we reach the orchestral misery of ‘Wave’, his echo-chamber vocals now intoning the word “isolation” over and over.
This isn’t LA in the blazing sunshine, as seen from a classic car cruising through Beverly Hills. This is the seedier fringes of the city just around twilight; Bukowski-like tales that feel warm with the afterglow of a party, but with a hangover on the way. It couples a moody sort of glamour with a concrete feeling of loneliness, and it makes for some of the most affecting comedown folk you’re likely to hear all year.