Monday, February 24, 2014

Beck's Next Phase

We ran into Paul, my client at Warner Bros. Records, on 6th Avenue and he was almost wide-eyed with excitement. "Are you into Beck?" he asked, "I've really been digging Beck."

I was confused. "You mean Jeff Beck?" It was 1994 and I couldn't imagine what the ex-Yardbirds, jazz-fusoid axe-slinger could've done at this late date to excite my friend so. "No, just BECK - he has this song Loser, you gotta hear it."

Soon enough I was singing "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" along with everyone else. Mellow Gold was a wild ride, and along with the shambolic country-punk-blues of One Foot In The Grave, released that same year, proved the blank-faced kid was no one hit wonder. Even that one-two punch did not quite prepare me for the mastery of Odelay, which took some of the sonic hallmarks of Paul's Boutique (courtesy The Dust Brothers production team) and added heart, soul and tight songwriting.

Mutations came next, which developed some of those singer-songwriter strains that had been bubbling around the edges of Beck's work. Although very different than Odelay, it was also basically a perfect record and filled with variety, from the meta-blues of Nobody's Fault But My Own to the Brazil-psych of Tropicalia. I was not a fan of Midnite Vultures from 1999, not because it was cultural imperialism (as some had it), but simply because it was the first reactionary Beck album. Mutations had been a bit of a left turn and didn't go over so well with the huge fan base he had accumulated by then. Midnite Vultures seems like either an attempt to win the old fans back or to piss the new ones off.

Them came Sea Change, an even less brash album than Mutations, but one that was widely embraced - it seems his audience had finally caught up with him. One of the great break-up records, Sea Change was also Beck's most sonically gorgeous music, thanks in part to the inventive string arrangements of his father, David Campbell. It's an album that has aged well for me, with more variety of texture and mood than I recall finding at the time. Several of the songs, including Lost Cause and Sunday Sun are among the decade's finest. Three years passed before Guero came out. While it was a solid return to his funky sample-a-delic wheelhouse, and had none of the defensiveness of Midnite Vultures, the sense of having arrived at a plateau was unmistakeable.

The Information and Modern Guilt only solidified that impression, with very little in the way of memorable songs. While Beck had worked with name-brand producers before, Modern Guilt was the first time I felt he had subsumed his personality to one, in this case Danger Mouse. Strangely enough, what became his last album for six years has also dated quickly, which should be a caution to other artists seeking the services of Danger Mouse.

Already half tuned out, I found myself thinking of Beck as an artist I had connected with only in the past tense. Sure, I kept in touch, following his forays into production along with the online cover bands, the quixotic Song Reader project, etc., but none of it touched me. The Warholian distance that once seemed so intriguing now just seemed distant. I admit this led to some resistance on my part when it came to listening to the early singles from Morning Phase, which may be the most buzzed about album of 2014. That hype was also an obfuscating factor, but I pride myself on listening with open ears no matter what and I felt I owed it to Beck to give Morning Phase a real chance.

I knew going in that he had reconvened the musicians with whom he had made Sea Change, including his father, and that it would be mining the singer-songwriter side of his music, something he hadn't done since that album. However, others have been busy in that neck of the woods, including the likes of Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Jonathan Wilson and Father John Misty - some of my favorite artists of the last six years. Would Beck be able to rally and elbow his way into the august company now occupying some of the space he had staked such a claim to 14 years ago?

The answer is an unequivocal "yes." Morning Phase is a triumph from beginning to end, a song cycle characterized by soaring melodies, rich, layered production (by Beck himself), and lyrics that read like an open book but hint at depths of emotion. Themes of renewal (Morning: "It's morning/I've lost all my defenses"), abnegation (Blue Moon: "Cut me down to size/So I can fit inside"), and loneliness (Wave, and elsewhere) strike universal chords but seem to come from a place of wisdom and experience.

Echoes of classic music by the Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, David Crosby, and others serve as guideposts for the listener, and likely for Beck himself, without ever sounding slavish. As With Sea Change, Morning Phase reveals more variety with each listen, unfurling colors the way petals unfold in a time lapse of a blossoming flower. At first, I heard what seemed an uninterrupted haze of acoustic guitars, strings and gentle percussion, but soon began to crave the individual songs and their details. The warm ostinato of Heart Like A Drum, the brooding rhythm of Unforgiven, the perfect Kenny Buttrey drums of Country Down, and finally the apotheosis of Waking Light, which builds to an explosive (in this context) Leslie-fied guitar solo and ends the album with a solid crunch that is both startling and satisfying.

Morning Phase already feels like an old friend, and the fact that it signals the return of Beck at his best makes it even more meaningful. My message to any other Beck apostates out there is "Are you into Beck? I've really been digging Beck."

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