Everyone needs sad songs occasionally. A little musical wallow
can be an important part of the healing process - whether you're
getting over loneliness (Nilsson's 'Without You'), a departed child
(The Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home'), or the destruction of
Jerusalem (the Book of Lamentations - not as catchy, that one).
Sea Change, Beck Hansen's 2002 album, was a collection
of tear-drenched songs inspired by the break-up of Hansen's
nine-year relationship, and as such provided some superior material
for moping around your bedroom crying. These were songs performed
at a glacial pace, draped in sincerity rather than the slacker cool
of Beck's career highlight 'Odelay'.
Now, 12 years later, he's gathered the same musicians together
for a tonal sequel to Sea Change - this time the
blood-letting coming not as a response to the death of a
relationship, but following an extended period of incapacity
because of an injury to his spine.
Because of this shift in the source of the misery, Morning
Phase's mood is more one of existential malaise than the raw
nerve-endings of its prequel. Indeed, after a ten-year marriage and
two children, Beck sometimes seems a little bit too happy to be
singing sad songs - the music plucking the heart-strings, but the
lyrics only offering formless cut-up poetry in response.
There are glimmers of commentary about his injury. Lines like
'Bones crack / Curtains drawn / On my back / And she is gone' from
'Say Goodbye' are practically begging for lyric nerd
interpretations on SongMeanings.com. But it's more the mood of
these quiet, slow songs that communicates the grief.
Stylistically, the homage to Sea Change is striking.
Nick Drake-esque folk is augmented by stately, deliberate country
swing. The lush strings of Hansen's father David Campbell are once
again employed to great effect, washing over the finger-picked
guitars; particularly on 'Wave', where the nautical swells of the
string arrangements underline the woozy mood. However, taken as a
whole, there's an unnerving sense that Hansen is walking a path
he's already ventured down; the great innovator's comforting
retreat into the language of his past.
There are a few diversions: the emphatic piano stabs of 'Blue
Moon', some lovely phased keys in 'Unforgiven', or the Gothic
country of 'Turn Away', but the album's tone is so monolithic, so
uniform, that it slips effortlessly into a forgettable slab; Beck
as background music.
As a second-generation Scientologist, Beck is, presumably,
extremely familiar with the 'auditing' process, where individuals
relive past traumas to free themselves of their baggage. It is
perhaps unfair to suggest this, but maybe Morning Phase
fulfils the same function. It's Beck talking us through his
post-injury isolation, telling us how it felt to be in that room.
Lonely, motionless, inert, his thoughts fractured, his sense of
self washing away on the tide.