Who would have thought that the defining persona of one of music’s most adept and adventurous shape-shifters of the past 20 years would end up being that most traditional role of sad dude with an acoustic guitar?
There’s more to “Morning Phase,” Beck’s first new album in 51 / 2 years, than simple unplugged melancholy. But because he is returning from such a long layoff with an album of such singular vision, it’s hard not to interpret this as a clear statement of purpose.
As Beck begins the next chapter of his career, he is most definitely not a ramshackle raggamuffin; the clown prince of the slacker ’90s; a funk lothario coming on to J.C. Penney clerks; or the experimentalist whose 2012 “album” “Song Reader” was released only as sheet music. He is a serious artist, making layered, gorgeous music about feelings, because that’s what serious artists do.
“Morning Phase” is a triumph on the periphery. Elaborate flourishes and elegant arrangements decorate every song with an enveloping glow. Even if many of those lovely sounds are stock at this point — string swells and echoed vocals always come in exactly when you expect them to — they are still expertly deployed through these midtempo dirges. But the overall effect is akin to putting pencil sketches into gold-plated frames. The shiny stuff on the outside is nice but less appealing when it turns out to be the main attraction.
And that’s the case on almost every song. “Morning” begins with gentle strumming before the plinks and bells quietly fill in spaces in verses — and then the symphonic surge announces the arrival of the chorus. “But can we start it all again?/This morning/I’ve lost all my defenses,” the 43-year-old sings.
If the arrangements Beck curates (he serves as the album’s producer) are concerned with the smallest of details, his lyrics are the opposite, dealing with love and heartbreak in the broadest sense. “Somewhere else/I do not know/Time will tell/And I will go,” he sings on “Say Goodbye.” And on “Wave,” he repeats the word “isolation” in a hypnotic, drawn-out style, as if it’s the worst mantra ever. On this album, the lyrics are just another garnish.
Although the ingredients seem to suggest a depressing listen, “Morning Phase,” to Beck’s credit, never truly drags. The songs may be far from joyous, but there’s a certain life to them.
The album serves as a fitting companion to Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated film, “Her,” in which solitude is made better by seemingly perfect surroundings. The less-orchestral, more-rustic songs stand out as the best. “Say Goodbye” features some imperfectly plucked banjo that is oddly comforting, and Beck gives his vocals a hint of twang to match the accompaniment of “Country Down.” The latter recalls Neil Young; the older musician’s companion pieces “Harvest” and later “Harvest Moon” can be seen as an antecedent to Beck’s pairing of “Mirror Phase” with his 2002 album, “Sea Change.” “Mirror Phase” is one of the most unadorned songs on the album, succeeding on the strength of straightforward writing and a nifty harmonica solo.
That “Morning Phase” is so clearly a sequel — and arguably a slightly updated carbon copy — to “Sea Change,” Beck’s previous exercise in sad-sackery, makes it hard not to compare the album with the rest of Beck’s discography, as well. Of course, nobody is asking Beck to re-create the collision of the genres he navigated so well in the ’90s. And even more certainly, nobody is expecting him to sing lines such as, “with the plastic eyeballs/spray paint the vegetables/dog food skulls with the beefcake pantyhose.” (Those lyrics, from his 1993 breakout hit “Loser,” could have been delivered only at that specific moment in time and only by Beck.) But ultimately, “Mirror Phase” feels like settling. It’s a gorgeous album, but it’s one that we’ve heard before and isn’t a full course.