Beck’s Long Road to ‘Morning Phase’
Beck says playing with his band has been one of the best things in making music over the last few decades
The flashbacks come at high speed as soon as Beck hits the stage in an airplane-hangar-like hall at Technopolis, a science-and-amusement park in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is mid-November, the final date of a short South American tour, and Beck ”“ in a red sport jacket and black wide-rimmed fedora ”“ opens with a blaze of hits nearly 20 years old including “Devils Haircut,” “Novacane” and “Hotwax,” all from 1996’s Odelay, and his ’93 hip-hop-blues breakthrough “Loser.” The band is all old sidekicks ”“ guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboard player Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and drummer Joey Waronker ”“ and the effect is full-throttle garage-funk mettle. When Beck opens “Loser” with an unaccompanied free-style guitar solo, he sounds like Jimmy Page phoning in from Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.”
But the best-of fireworks are just as striking for what they are not: anything like Beck’s new record, Morning Phase, to be released in February by Capitol. That album, his first in five years, is “California music,” as Beck says before the show, sitting in the garden of his Buenos Aires hotel. When he makes any album, he explains, “I’m just fumbling around with chords and a mood. Hopefully something emerges.” This time, he goes on, “the songs are coming out of a California tradition. I’m hearing the Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Gram Parsons, Neil Young ”“ the bigger idea of what that sound is to me.”
Dawn’s Early Light
That is an apt description of Beck’s trip through the gently psychedelic suspense and warming cosmic-cowboy reflection on Morning Phase. There are combined echoes of mid-Sixties Scott Walker and Love’s Forever Changes in the slow bloom of the opening hymn “Wave.” “Blackbird Chain,” with its milky jangle and dewy strings, and the plaintive “Unforgiven” evoke 1968’s Notorious Byrd Brothers and the floating introspection of David Crosby’s 1971 classic, If I Could Only Remember My Name.
There are similarities in texture, velocity and personnel to Beck’s quiet 2003 masterpiece, Sea Change. Beck, who produced Morning Phase, made it with the band from the former record ”“ the same guys on stage with him in Buenos Aires ”“ while his father, Sea Change orchestrator David Campbell, returned to help with brass and string arrangements. But Beck is loathe to use the word “sequel” to characterize Morning Phase. “It was going back to the same place,” he says, “and seeing where we’re all at, like those Seven Up! movies, where they go back and see those people every seven years.”
There is a fresh, expansive complexity to the grace and details on Morning Phase: the Caribbean-flavored power pop of “Blue Moon”; the strutting banjo that recalls Beck’s teenage blues-hobo years in “Say Goodbye”; the Leslie-guitar crescendo at the end of “Waking Light,” summoning the spirit of George Harrison’s soloing in the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Morning Phase also has a specific, thematic weight. All 12 songs are set in dawn’s early light, those hours of awakening and reckoning at the start of each day when a relationship can founder, end or begin anew.
“It’s not heavy-handed, but it’s in there,” Beck says of the concept. “There’s this feeling of tumult and uncertainty, getting through that long, dark night of the soul ”“ whatever you want to call it,” he adds, cracking a laugh. “These songs were about coming out of that ”“ how things do get better.”
The Long Road to “Morning Phase”
Beck recorded the basic tracks for most of Morning Phase quickly, in Los Angeles at the start of this year ”“ in three days of tracking with those musicians ”“ before spending almost half a year on his own, “figuring it all out,” he says, “how to make all of the parts work.”
The roots of Morning Phase, however, go back almost a decade. In 2005, Beck went to Nashville to make an album. He didn’t finish it. “I recorded a bunch of things real quick. Then I thought, ‘I need to come back and try this again.” He did. Two years ago, he returned to Nashville, cutting a one-off single for Jack White’s Third Man label and several other songs for a prospective LP. “At the end of it, it wasn’t quite there,” Beck confesses. “But I ended up keeping a few songs.” “Waking Light,” “Blackbird Chain” and the Dylan-esque goodbye song “Country Down” all made it to Morning Phase.
That record is the second new album Beck has completed since 2008’s Modern Guilt ”“ along with a full stream of production jobs (Thurston Moore, Charlotte Gainsbourg); his online Record Club series of re-recordings, with assorted friends, of classic LPs by Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underground and Skip Spence; and the 2012 launch of Song Reader, a book-form anthology of new compositions for others to interpret. Beck started another solo project, closer to the clutter and swerve of Odelay, at the turn of 2009. He completed it, then shelved it. That record, never officially titled, has been the source for his recent series of privately issued 12-inch singles, including “Gimme” and “I Won’t Be Long.” Beck hopes to ultimately issue the entire album in that form.
“I didn’t have a label anymore,” he points out. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to put out a record ”“ or if I should put out a record. It felt like I was standing still, while everything else was in such flux.” Even with all of that work, “I didn’t really know where everything was landing.”
Beck was also recovering from a long period of severe, physical pain. Shortly before making Modern Guilt, Beck suffered a back injury that caused “spinal damage,” as he puts it. “I was in bad shape. There were a number of years where I couldn’t pick up my guitar.
“Making that record,” he says of Modern Guilt, “was like doing it with both hands tied behind your back. It hurt to sing. I’m whispering through half of those vocals.” Beck has returned to former strength as his James Brown swivelled-toe dance moves on stage in Buenos Aires confirm. “Some of the songs on the new record ”“ I get to shout and yell. I’m like, ‘Thank you!’ I had a lot of ideas and things I’d been wanting to do. This last year and a half, I feel like I can really do them.”
The Next Phase
Beck is already halfway through a followup album to Morning Phase that he hopes to release later next year. It is not, as rumored, a solo acoustic record.
“It’s still in flux,” he says. “I’m thinking about the live show, a certain energy. That’s a whole other kind of writing ”“ and difficult to do. You’re writing for a studio environment that is the antithesis of where the song is going to live.”
Beck is also looking forward to playing the Morning Phase songs in concert next year ”“ hopefully, he notes, “with the guys again. We’ve been doing this tour and done a few one-offs this summer. But everybody’s getting busy. Joey’s playing with Thom Yorke now [in Atoms for Peace] and Justin is producing a ton of albums. This might be it for some time.”
But, Beck says, “playing with them has been one of the best things in making music over the last few decades. It’s an amazing band, and I don’t take it for granted.” That night at Technopolis, before finishing the show with “Where It’s At,” Beck takes a moment to publically and profusely thank his musicians and shake each one’s hand.
“There are few bands like it,” Beck says gratefully that afternoon, before heading to the venue. “It’s such a special thing, where everything is adding up to something bigger.”