The musician Beck Hansen, better known by his stage name, Beck, is one of the few male musicians in the business who goes by a single moniker. Unlike his fellow artists who are known by a mononym, however, Beck’s music was never as simple as his single name suggests. Starting from the unexpected success of his 1993 hit “Loser”-which blended folk, rap, and the delta blues-he has proven himself capable of mixing different types of music into a song that’s both original and catchy, and his new album Morning Phase is no different.
The album begins just as the title suggests: in the pleasant morning phase-or perhaps, morning haze might be more accurate. The opener to the album, “Cycle,” is only 40 seconds of sound, but it is beautifully executed-its string arrangements perfectly translate the morning into sound. It’s as if you are listening to what a sunrise would sound like. The dreamy morning feeling continues on the next track, “Morning,” in which Beck uses xylophones and chimes to create a whimsical feel. This whimsy is juxtaposed with his excellent acoustic guitar work. The song is reminiscent of the beauty that washes over you when listening to Nick Drake. Beck’s vocal effects are the evocative of early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd-his voice would be unspectacular without them. The atmosphere that Beck creates in these opening six minutes is so beautiful, light, and airy that it could comfortably go on forever.
Much like the morning itself, however, this ambiance, too, fades. The lightness of the morning is gone and replaced with a hangover. The next part of the record is filled with regret and alienation. This is especially recognizable in the appropriately titled, “Say Goodbye.” The light folk and psychedelic air is quickly replaced with a much heavier acoustic guitar sound that recalls the work of artists like Neil Young and Jim Croce. The song would be nothing more than a transition from one mood to the next and would be easily forgettable if it weren’t for Beck’s attention-grabbing guitar-layering-he contrasts the steadiness of his fingerpicking with dissonant rhymes. It makes for an odd sound, but then again, nothing that Beck does in this album is ordinary.
While most songs on the album provide a thought-provoking take on the folk genre- drenched in a paradox of melancholy and sunlight that evokes the sounds of the ’60s-none of the songs is particularly catchy. That changes with the first single off the album, “Blue Moon.” The song is one of the only ones within the album that has a steady drumbeat-and for Beck, it’s a steady march to loneliness. The song combines the “oohs” and “ahs” of his backup singers with the brilliantly catchy keyboard melody, and this all happens around the end of the song, which is striking, considering what has come before it. The only other particularly catchy song on the album is “Blackbird Chain.” It has the same arresting guitar and classic slide guitar sound used in old Western movie scores. On the track, Beck promises to read his lover “a brief account of the last frontier.” Unlike “Blue Moon,” however, “Blackbird Chain” is a much happier song, as he promises to “never refuse you”-it’s a somewhat unusual part of an album that ultimately is lyrically and musically about loneliness.
This is best personified in “Wave.” Beck is only accompanied by ominous strings on this track, and his vocals are so sparse (with the same Pink Floyd-esque effects that were heard on “Morning”) that they seem only to come in waves. When he does sing, he declares that he moves from place to place in the form a “disturbance,” and he ends the song with a menacing refrain, simply repeating “isolation.”
Morning Phase seems to go in a cycle, as the title of the first track suggests. It goes from light, airy happiness in the beginning to immense sorrow and then back to sunny and happy vibes. While it ends up-both musically and lyrically-in the same place that it started, the album never feels stale, as new elements are added to each song. The record is never-ending in its creativity. If anyone has earned the use of one name, it’s Beck. He is singular.