Morning Phase finds Beck, the ever-restless singer/songwriter/producer/ instrumentalist, in the same mellow, thoughtful mood he unveiled on 2002’s Sea Change. The songs unfold at unhurried tempos—there’s not an upbeat number in the batch—forcing you yourself to slow down and simply listen. The experience is a stark contrast to current pop, which strives so desperately to impress. Here, the music doesn’t try to grab you—you must approach it.
Doing so proves immensely satisfying. As is typical of Beck albums, the first layer of reward is aural. The man has an ear for arrangements, and the production chops to realize his vision. Morning Phase’s songs are unfailingly ravishing. Though Beck is an electronics wiz, this materials’ humility calls for an acoustic touch. Thus, Beck anchors every track with either an acoustic guitar or strings. He then crowns the instrumental beauty with stunningly lush harmonies.
Which leads to the second layer of reward: the words. Beck is an intelligent lyricist; he chooses a subject, then finds unique ways to treat it. The subject of Morning Phase can be summed up in one word: parting. Parting from spent relationships, from the past, or from present circumstances. And what does all that parting lead to? Beck’s prognosis isn’t hopeful. “Wave,” for example, ends with the word “isolation” repeated like a mantra.
Yet, musically, none of these songs succumbs to despair. Indeed, their sunny spirit imbues the album with optimism. And that’s the third layer of reward: the music itself. Gorgeous arrangements take a song only so far; underneath, there must be something you can carry with you. On first listening, all these songs, with their unified theme and pace, sound similar. But over time each reveals its individuality. Eventually they all worm their way inside you—but ever so gently.
It’s always a treat when an album is released simultaneously on CD and HDtracks, as was Morning Phase. Thank you, Norm Chesky! Both the disc and the 96/24 download are what I would term pleasant recordings. They have neither digital glare nor other noxious elements, and are carefully mixed so you can easily hear every musical layer. Yet the recording isn’t open or immediate enough to fall into audiophile territory.
That said, the download has an extra pillow of air and dynamic headroom that gives it a small but distinct advantage over the CD. You won’t hear this on vocals, but it’s clearly audible on the acoustic guitar. Since that’s Morning Phase’s bedrock instrument, and since you don’t already own any version of this album, you should go for the download.