A dozen years ago, Beck, still licking his wounds after a nasty breakup, shocked listeners with the appropriately titled “Sea Change.” The singer, it must be remembered, was most celebrated for the eclectic, post-modern and often-funky trifecta of “Mellow Gold,” “Odelay” and “Midnite Vultures.” A mournful set of singer-songwriter laments wasn’t exactly what his audience was expecting — at least not that mournful.
Beck returns to that haunting sonic terrain on the new “Morning Phase.” But emotionally, he’s clearly in a much happier place. He’s not only on a new label, but the married father of two. And while this is his first official studio album since 2008’s “Modern Guilt,” he has been industrious in the interim, producing others (Thurston Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks), composing his acclaimed sheet music-only Song Reader folio project and making available a wealth of material through his online Record Club, a series in which he and notable friends like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy rerecord a classic album in a day. “Morning Phase” certainly isn’t all sunshine and butterflies — Beck still sings of “roses full of thorns,” falling mountains and sad goodbyes throughout its 13 tracks – but its bleak beauty demonstrates more comfort and contentment than despair. There are even moments of — gasp — optimistic resolve. “We could come to understand what’s wrong is right as rain,” he sings on “Don’t Let It Go.”
Beck made the wise choice of reuniting the quietly muscular “Sea Change” core band (guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., percussionist Joey Waronker) for “Morning Phase,” and tapped several returning guests, including R&B drumming legend James Gadson, bassist Stanley Clarke and pedal steel master Greg Leisz. Beck’s father, noted composer-arranger David Campbell, even pitches in, providing beautifully lush string arrangements throughout, including the hopeful melancholy of brief opener “Cycle.”
The results are assured and often downright buoyant. There’s a wistful, nuanced ambience to “Heart Is a Drum,” “Morning” and “Waking Light.” Beck sings “Unforgiven” like a young Brian Wilson and infuses “Turn Away” with Simon & Garfunkel-style harmonies, while “Blackbird Chain” is campfire rock that sounds like R.E.M. channeling Buffalo Springfield. The harmonica-driven twang of “Country Down” segues beautifully into the spectral, winding contemplation of “Waking Light,” a one-two punch that brings “Morning Phase” to a rich, hopeful conclusion.
Beck has said he’s planning another, more uptempo and rhythmic album later this year. “Odelay” fans will certainly be happy to hear that, but this is a gentle return to a phase that’s worth repeating.