Beck has learned to say goodbye, he’s endured i-so-la-tion, someone or he himself remains unforgiven. He may have dropped the “u” for the title, but in his Morning Phase, Beck is grieving. He’s also slowly resigning himself to the consistency of change, and his new album is gorgeous and sad and comforting all at once.
Morning, sunrise, and “waking light” all herald CHANGE in big — if fuzzy — letters. Something is new. She is gone. The bed is bigger and colder and your arms feel weirdly long when you don’t need them to wrap someone else closer.
Plaintive strumming hammer heartbreak home, and the effect is a hazy, half-asleep attempt to piece last night together, which slowly becomes an effort to piece together a relationship in full. Notably, “goodbye” is not among “the words we use to say goodbye.” We rarely realize how “I’m busy”s, “I’m too tired”s, and “you never used to think so”s slowly, imperceptibly accrete into “goodbye.” We don’t realize until it’s too late to actually say goodbye, at which point it becomes crushingly obvious.
Beck’s new-day symbols also evoke cycles, and in their repetition they recall sunrise’s deception: the orange globe appears to be emerging new, growing from the horizon’s womb, but it merely signifies global spinning. It’s both miraculous and totally expected, more predictable than death and taxes.
Maybe Beck’s cycles are closer to deja vu: the feeling of recursion so strong that you can hear your own words before you say them, and yet you cannot place the initial speech. Repetition endows meaning and gravity until a tipping point, after which it cultivates insanity, absurdity, and, eventually, inescapable horror. Deja vu, for a few seconds, suggests that time is imagined, or suggests a multiverse in which we’ve accidentally been allowed to try the same moment twice. And yet given this chance, we repeat ourselves. We are doomed to discover that these opportunities exist exactly when we realize that they have passed.
The album’s press release explicitly points out the already-clear connection to Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change, but we don’t need to be told that he’s been here before. “I’m so tired of being alone,” he croons, and we can hear him remembering just how many times he’s woken up solitary, again.
‘Wave’’s opening strings imply a slow-moving ocean of their title. He’s floating in the few seconds between sleep and consciousness, when emotions burn brighter but you don’t know yet what’s real. He’s floating between Kübler-Ross’ fourth and fifth stages of grief, churning last night’s depression into this morning’s acceptance. Beck takes 47 minutes to open his eyes all the way. They’re open now, though: Morning Phase is rife with a clarity of instrumentation, lyrical phrasing, and vocal intonation that, say, Odelay’s free association rap-rock wouldn’t recognize.
This clarity is so consistent, and the album’s themes so cohesive that it starts to feel like one, long music-essay rather than a collection of disparate songs. While ‘Morning’ and ‘Blue Moon’ stand out on first listen for Beck’s elegant phrasing and intonations, they slowly bleed into one another. The penultimate ‘Country Down,’ with its Gillian Welchian refrain, may be the only track that could really stand apart from the album on its own.
Even the arrestingly beautiful closer begins to feel recursive, and once you’ve listened to the album a few times, you could be forgiven for thinking that final track ‘Waking Light’ is really its opener— like waking up from a nap at twilight and thinking you slept through the night.
With more listens still the album’s tranquility starts to lull. The feeling of eyes-half-open sunrise begins to feel like heavy-eyelid sleepiness. You might wonder if Beck is digging deep into a rut he feels stuck in as a defense mechanism to avoid the harder challenge of trying something really new. Someone might slap him awake soon, but, for now, Beck is learning to love the transitory float.