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Album review: Beck’s ‘Morning Phase’ ranks as one of his most direct works to date

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Beck’s back (not that he ever really went anywhere).
Annie Zaleski

Four stars

Beck Morning Phase

Twenty-plus years into his career, Beck has mastered the art of being everywhere and nowhere at once. Although he last released a studio full-length in 2008 (Modern Guilt), in the ensuing years he’s produced records for other people (Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus), steered full-album cover performances of records by INXS and Leonard Cohen and released a handful of low-key singles under his own name and pseudonyms. In 2012, he even released Song Reader, a collection of sheet music featuring songs he wrote but no actual sound recordings.

Clearly, being chameleonic and elusive is something upon which he thrives, and that creative restlessness has also helped Beck’s proper albums feel more focused and pointed. That’s certainly the case with Morning Phase, a gentle homage to British psychedelic rock (dig the Pink Floyd-esque harmonies pouring out of “Morning” and the fried-to-a-crisp guitars on “Blackbird Chain”), rustic California pop and ambient folktronica. “Heart Is a Drum” has cool rushes of piano and snappy backmasked sounds; funereal orchestras swell up with menace on “Wave,” as Beck repeatedly wails the word “isolation”; and “Say Goodbye” is an acoustic guitar-driven tearjerker (lyric: “These are the words we use to say goodbye”).

As that last song implies, 2002’s Sea Change is a tempting comparison. But Morning Phase lacks the latter album’s wallowing self-pity and emotional resignation; despite plenty of anguish, these songs face loss and heartbreak with a brave, confident face. “I’m so tired of being alone,” Beck practically bellows on “Blue Moon,” while on “Morning,” he asks, “Can we start it all over again? ... Won’t you show me the way it used to be?” His clear-eyed take on familiar thematic ground is anything but monochromatic, making Morning Phase one of his most sincere, direct pieces of work.

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