Musical chameleon Beck Hansen has returned with a new album, a companion piece to a much cherished earlier work; however, those of you longing for a return to the lo-fi growl of Mellow Gold (Slacker Beck) or an heir to the experimental Odelay (Eclectic Beck) may be disappointed to learn that Morning Phase is essentially a sequel to the confessional, song-driven sound of Sea Change. In other words: Grown-up Beck.
The album opens with the instrumental ‘Cycle’, 40 seconds of lush strings and mournful synthesiser tones to set the mood for the collection of introspective songs which follow. ‘Morning’ begins with a lazily strummed acoustic guitar, before the reverberated vocal “Woke up this morning… Found a love light in the storm” reveals Wistful Beck: a 43 year-old Scientologist with a penchant for early yearning,and who now writes music that’s reminiscent of Coldplay and latter period Pink Floyd (never a good thing). The next two tracks, ‘Heart Is A Drum’ and ‘Say Goodbye’ bear the influence of Nick Drake and Neil Young respectively. The finger-picked acoustic guitar and accompanying piano on the former recall the up-tempo folk of Bryter Layter, while the latter sounds like it might have been plucked from a pile of songs not quite good enough to make the cut for Harvest.
On the first single from the album, ‘Blue Moon’ (sadly not a cover of the doo-wop classic, which might have been more interesting) Beck complains “I’m so tired of being alone”, before nursery rhyming “See the turncoat on his knees/A vagabond that no one sees”. Is this really the same man who wrote ‘MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack”? Hansen takes things down a notch with the catatonic ‘Unforgiven’ (imagine a lovelorn Chris Martin on temazepam) and the funereal ‘Wave’ (Nico Beck without the Teutonic vocals and harmonium), before borrowing the melody from Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ for ‘Don’t Let It Go’. Beck’s journey to the Dark Side would seem to be complete.
Two thirds of the way through, the Lambchop-esque ‘Blackbird Chain’ goes some way to help redeem Beck for what has gone before. Sadly, the trio of songs which close Morning Phase are unable to lift the album from its middle-of-the-road malaise: ‘Turn Away’ is a paint by numbers Simon & Garfunkel; ‘Country Down’ sounds like another rejection from Harvest; and ‘Waking Light’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a collection of Elton John B-sides. If Beck set out to record NOW That’s What I Call Inoffensive Coffee Shop Music! he has succeeded; this album certainly has a ready-made audience among those who consider the likes of Chris Martin and Mumford & Sons to be gifted exponents of their craft. Unfortunately for Beck, John Grant does the melancholic male singer-songwriter thing with far greater pathos, humour and grace; last year’s Pale Green Ghosts makes Morning Phase sound tired and tame by comparison. Maybe it’s time Beck put down the acoustic guitar and got back on two turntables and microphone.