Despite the recent deluge of social media comments to the contrary, Beck Hansen is an artist that really needs no introduction. He’s been making music for 20 years, taking influence from countless genres and winning 5 Grammy Awards in the process. His most recent release, Morning Phase, arrived on February 21st, 2014 as a follow-up/companion piece to his 2002 album Sea Change, and subsequently won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. This win inspired countless Facebook statuses and Twitter posts wondering “who the hell is Beck?” and caused Kanye West to go on an embarrassing rant about artistic integrity (which subsequently prompted Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson to elegantly refer to West as a “complete twat”). So yes, Morning Phase has recently caused a fair share of controversy for Beck. But aside from the clueless Tweets and post-show rants it may have generated, is the album any good?
From a technical standpoint, Morning Phase is damn near flawless. Beck produced the album on his own, and he’s proven himself to be every bit as talented in that regard as Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich. Every guitar strum, orchestral flourish, and glockenspiel twinkle is clear and resounding with no one instrument overpowering the other. Beck’s voice has also evolved over the years. His vocals in the past have had a lackadaisical, almost slurred quality at times, but his voice here is stronger and more powerful than ever; when he belts out “I’m so tired of being alone” at the beginning of lead single “Blue Moon,” it’s a moment that you can practically feel in your gut. And there are indeed several standout songs on Morning Phase: “Morning” is lush and intimate; “Say Goodbye” elevates some basic lyrical phrasing with a very catchy vocal line on the chorus; and “Wave,” comprised only of Beck’s vocals and an orchestral backing, is a daring display of compositional bravado.
However, the album’s status as a companion piece to Sea Change is where it falters a bit; Sea Change was fraught with sorrow, prompted by the dissolution of a near decade-long relationship. Beck’s normally detached, ironic slacker persona was nowhere to be seen, replaced for once by a sad, passionate, real human being. Morning Phase follows along in that same mold, but as the saying goes, time heals all wounds. The bitter melancholy that once drove Beck at age 32 has dwindled to a sort of wistful nostalgia at age 44, and as such, Morning Phase just doesn’t have the same bite as its predecessor. The song craft on display on Morning Phase is generally of high quality, but there’s no starkly honest confessional like “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” no visceral gutpunch like “Round the Bend;” the songs all sort of blend together into a samey, vaguely bittersweet whole.
Still, a lack of angst doesn’t mean that an album is bad. Morning Phase isn’t at the top of Beck’s catalogue, but is still a solid, enjoyable release from an unpredictable yet remarkably consistent musical auteur.