It’s pretty clear from just the 41-second introduction to Beck’s new Morning Phase that novelty, boundary pushing, and plain weirdness — the real staples of Beck’s legacy — are not part of this record’s master plan. Something of a mellifluous musical Zen prayer, “Cycle” opens the records’ blinds to overwhelming So-Cal sunshine in the most relaxing way.
And it’s not just this track that has listeners gazing distantly, almost out of body, across a musical soundscape that is consistently sunny and golden: it’s all of them. “Morning” is exactly what it sounds like – a track to which you wake up and lumber around contentedly, almost unthinking. It’s an undeniably pretty piece full warmth, but strangely lacking lyrical feeling. This dynamic of easy-listening feel good music coupled with nearly emotionless lyricism persists across the duration of the record, lending the strange effect of being simultaneously musically full, but also completely void of substance.
Completely absent on Morning Phase are Beck’s previous breakaway lyrical power-plays that seem to have worked their way into the idiomatic lexicon of pop culture. Nowhere on this album will you find anything akin to “I’m a loser, baby / so why don’t you kill me?” or anything bordering on Spanish pseudo-rap. Gone are the crunchy sounds of power chords rocketing out of a Telecaster. The lack thereof may not necessarily be a bad thing, but whereas his previous work was striking for pushing of the envelope, Morning Phase feels completely content being within that envelope.
Morning Phase finds Beck in a curious position: while he has never sounded better, he has also never sounded so tame. To the record’s credit, it sounds immaculate. Beck’s vocals are angelic, the guitars sweet, the bass fuzzy and warm, and the drums crisp. Produced by none other than Beck himself, it is masterfully crafted with incredible sound. Everything is in perfect balance. However, like a perfectly balanced cocktail, it’s almost too easy to drink. Drink too fast, or one too many, and suddenly party time has been replaced with bed time. Morning Phase is that too-smooth cocktail that grows very sleepy very quickly. Lyrically the album is just as free of rough edges. In fact, it’s quite free of anything at all. Whatever Beck intends to approximate in his lyrics is incredibly vague. The only real take-away message from this batch of lyrics is one of a kind of complacent frustration and resignation, although about what is not clear. Perhaps the most direct lyric of the entire album is the opening line of “Blue Moon,” which indignantly states “I’m so tired of being alone.” And that’s that.
On the whole, Morning Phase, perhaps as the name implies, does not feel like an all day every day type of record. It’s just too tame, too easy, too clean. Just once Beck could have cut loose and wailed like he’s very well capable of doing. While what is there sounds absolutely perfect, the musical absentees — namely, a degree of oomph and grit — really detract from the record’s overall memorability and its staying power.