Hopeless, regretful souls often wish for the existence of a time machine, but music is the best way to revisit the past.
With Beck’s 12th studio album, “Morning Phase,” he draws on the stripped-down acoustic tracks that made 2002’s “Sea Change” a classic. The similarities between the two albums are haunting, but rather than just regurgitating old work, Beck redevelops it.
Track two, “Morning,” imitates the opener of “Sea Change,” “The Golden Age.” The initial instrumental includes near-identical keys and spacey acoustics. In fact, for a bulk of the album, only a more edgy, less melancholy tone in Beck’s lyrics acts as the distinctive contrast between his two definitive albums.
The most notable element of “Sea Change” was the near-perfect string of songs near the album’s middle, “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” “Lonesome Tears” and “Lost Cause.” Although the trifecta presented listeners with Beck’s finest moment, the tracks were, well, just plain sad. He limits the doomsday this time around with songs like “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down,” where meekness lingers but fails to engulf everything.
If “Sea Change” sounded melancholy in a crowded café, “Morning Phase” resembles restlessness in an empty bar.
“Unforgiven” includes one of Beck’s strongest vocal performances to date — a far cry from the rhymes he spat two decades ago. “Heart is a Drum” out-minimalizes anything from “Sea Change,” a difficult task since listeners noted how simple “Sea Change” sounded compared to Beck’s prior work.
Beck’s decision to record an album so similar to past work could come off as unoriginal. However, his ability to recapture such a beautiful moment in his career is amazing. Recently Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen all found late-career boosts that inspired them to record music as quality as during their primes. But that took almost three decades; Beck found a second wind after just 12 years.
And with the album’s first single, “Blue Moon,” any accusations of double-dipping cease, as it flows like nothing Beck has recorded.
Easily 2014’s best track so far, “Blue Moon” perfects and revolutionizes the idea of folk rock with layered strings and a catchy hook. If Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers didn’t base songwriting and composition techniques around corniness, their efforts may sound like this.
Such a vivid tune filled with numerous heart-grabbing undertones, the song’s only issue is this: It makes the rest of “Morning Phase” seem a bit bland and abstract.
The three most impressionable aspects of the album all come from “Blue Moon”— Beck’s belting of the first verse, the organic chords that usher in the chorus, and the final instrumental section. I’ve never found critiquing a song for being too awesome necessary, but if a time ever arose, it’s here.
What follows “Blue Moon” can’t live up to the precedent it sets. The four tracks that precede the album’s standout song sound fine until listeners replay “Morning Phase” and realize the other 12 tracks aren’t on par.
However, other moments include snippets of what make “Blue Moon” successful. The aforementioned “Morning” includes a glow like blades of grass reflecting rays from the cloud-covered sun; “Say Goodbye” rolls faster than a nickel down a street gutter. Nothing compares to “Blue Moon,” but nothing lacks at least a portion of appeal.
Although not as emotive or fluid as “Sea Change,” “Morning Phase” takes listeners back to the early-‘00s when indie folk was still new and Beck crafted an album so stellar it needed revisiting.
Final Rating: Four out of Five Suns