Beck was, in his prime, consistently three steps ahead of his peers, paying tribute to ’70s-influenced lo-fi while grunge was still king, worshipping Prince before it became a full-fledged genre, and wallowing in sad, stripped-down Appalachian ballads years before indie-folk purveyors like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. Following the trinity of Odelay, Midnite Vultures, and Sea Change, however, Beck’s next three albums were far less assured, signaling the start of a long, hibernal period in which one of Gen X’s most iconic voices went mute altogether.
Fittingly, Morning Phase serves as the artist’s wake-up call to himself. The album plays out much like a vivid Kinetoscope, offering shimmering vignettes of a bleary-eyed, sandpaper-voiced Beck as he emerges from a six-year hiatus. Redolent not only with the kind of well-arranged grief found in Sea Change’s heartrending narratives, Morning Phase is also, oddly enough, evocative of light itself, particularly as it pertains to the idea of sunrise, with choruses marked by bright, sweeping instrumentation slowly breaking through the quieter, darker verses. In fact, almost every track seems to play as an interpretation of the process of returning to consciousness, like the dreamy, drifting “Morning” (itself a not-so-subtle nod to Sea Change ’s opener, “The Golden Age”), which unfurls from its early muted bars into something far more melodious, its drowsy acoustic guitar soon enlivened by colorful waves of grand, orchestral arrangement.
The album’s most poignant moments arrive when Beck comes face to face with his own fragility. Like Sea Change before it, one of Morning Phase’s greatest triumphs is its contribution to Beck’s humanization, peeling back the blasé, Dadaist slacker mask he’s donned so well to reveal all the anxieties and flaws hidden beneath. The pealing “Blue Moon,” for example, serves as the artist’s most straightforward and desperate plea for human connection yet. “See the turncoat on his knees, a vagabond that no one sees,” he sings, perhaps revealing what’s become of the youthful, liberated drifter who, on “Loser,” once arrogantly boasted about being a monkey in the time of chimpanzees.
Morning Phase isn’t Beck’s best album, nor does it eclipse the pathos he so artfully channeled on Sea Change. There’s an unfinished, first-chapter quality here, a structure building toward some as-yet-unheard climax that, as Beck has hinted publicly, suggests there’s a line of other projects waiting in the wings. Even if fragmented, however, Morning Phase stands tall in comparison to Beck’s larger catalogue, something that could not be said of his last few albums. It represents not only a return to form, but also serves as one of his most graceful efforts, the chronicle of an aging songwriter left devastated by the depth of his own loneliness. Gorgeously rendered but still ponderous, the album boasts a quiet strength that ultimately derives from the remarkable ability of its creator to deliver his grim sobriety with vibrancy and elegance.