Beck • Morning Phase

Capitol B00198302
CD
2014

Music

Sound

by Vance Hiner | March 6, 2014

ust after Beck Hansen released Morning Phase, his much-anticipated 12th studio album, there was a flurry of reaction. Some listeners called it the best work of his 20-year career, while a snarky minority tweeted that it was yet another example of weak "Dad rock." Whatever. As to whether this is Beck’s best work yet, I prefer to think of it as the perfect final installment in one of rock'n'roll’s greatest trilogies.

The work began in 1998 with the release of Mutations, a trippy homage to the Beatles and bossa nova that made it perfectly clear Beck was no "Loser," nor was he going to be the spokesperson for the slacker generation. Four years and a couple of worthy side trips later, Sea Change revealed a tortured grownup who had learned how to turn his pain into transcendent art. For my money, Sea Change is a nearly perfect album. It never gets old. But it ended too soon.

And that’s what makes the release of Morning Phase such a welcome event. Those of us who have longed for the final piece of this important musical arc were given something that is far greater than we had any right to expect. In a world of single-track downloads, it's remarkable how cohesive this album is. It begs you to listen from beginning to end, inviting you to luxuriate in the vivid colors and surprising twists that are perfectly arranged throughout the journey. Think Pet Sounds and Wish You Were Here with a little Harvest thrown in for good measure. That may sound like a strange mix, but in Beck’s world it works.

Morning Phase begins with a seamless transition that is very close to an actual quote from "The Golden Age" on Sea Change. The chiming synthesizer and swelling strings bring to mind that album’s wonderfully moody beginning. Another parallel is Beck’s continued use of light and nature as themes in his lyrics. On the second track, he sings, "The ocean’s a diamond that only shines when you’re alone." Sea Change is, likewise, full of similarly introspective scenes that take place under moonlight and in the desert. While the studio wizardry and exotic instrumentation that Beck started developing on Mutations and later refined on Sea Change continues on Morning Phase, it’s less busy here, even a bit stripped down by comparison. This may be due in part to the absence of longtime Beck producer Nigel Godrich. Thematically, Mutations shows a young man taking risks, and Sea Change is a portrait of disillusionment, while Morning Phase represents a resurrection of hope. This impression was underscored when I learned that Beck produced Morning Phase after years of struggling with a severe and debilitating back injury.

How is the sound? The mix is very layered, the soundstage is cinematic and the bass is simply incredible. I have listened to the CD, the 24-bit/96kHz files and the vinyl on three different but highly resolving systems. The LP I heard was superbly quiet. It was very dynamic and detailed while maintaining the music’s rich, warm tones. The consensus among half a dozen audiophiles on hand was that this is some very decent wax. The download from HDtracks is very nearly as good, while the Red Book disc comes in third, primarily because it exhibits an ever-so-slight edge that the high-resolution download manages to shed. Nonetheless, the recording quality and program material are so strong that I would be very content with any version.

Morning Phase is not the sonic home run that the Mobile Fidelity release of Sea Change is. For me, that reissue represents the gold standard by which all remastering work should be compared. The utter lack of compression as well as the level of detail, air and natural timbre that can be heard on that remaster are nearly unsurpassed. If MoFi is allowed to work similar magic with the Morning Phase master tapes, it will be a perfect exclamation point for this wonderful chapter in Beck’s long and productive musical career.

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