My scope for Beck is admittedly narrow. I know his biggest hits – namely “Loser” and “Where It’s At” – as well as anyone, but the rest of his catalogue is basically foreign. I know two of his albums, really: I got into Guero (the songs “E-Pro” and “Girl” specifically) back in college for a few months, and his fifth studio album, Odelay, is more of a word I’ve heard before than an album I’ve listened to at all. Overall, I’d say I’m clued into about 4% of the music Beck has put out. Why so low? Mostly because his discography includes TWELVE STUDIO ALBUMS. He’s putting out music like he’s U2, only instead of forcing it upon anybody with an iTunes account, he never told anyone.
It’s pretty amazing a guy who was worried about becoming a one-hit-wonder back in the early 90’s has suddenly had three different albums nominated at the Grammys for Album of the Year (Odelay, 1997; Midnite Vultures, 2001; Morning Phase, 2015). Beck keeps making music and it keeps getting critically high praise.
Beck’s real name is Bek Hansen. He was born Bek Campbell but his parents divorced and he took his mom’s name. He dropped out of school after 8th grade. At 19 he moved to New York with a guitar and eight dollars. He was basically homeless on both coasts for many years, living on friends couches that he met in NYC. His transient upbringing led to a variety of influences. Sometimes he would play gigs at bars or coffee shops and people wouldn’t really be paying attention so he’d start making up ridiculous lyrics to see if anyone would notice.
Beck wrote “Loser” as a goofy side project that he didn’t really think much of. When he moved back to LA it got released as a single and blew up on the radio. Still essentially homeless, he thought it was a mediocre song, but suddenly record companies were in a crazy bidding war over him. He signed with Greffen Records which basically just told him to do whatever he wanted – probably why he picked them over others.
I can’t figure out who Beck really is. I get the vibe he’s an anxious songwriter who fears getting labeled as…anything really, but especially a one-hit-wonder. It seems like any time Beck begins to get pigeon-holed as some sort of genre or “type” of artist, he pushes back and becomes anti-that. His time in New York found him heavily involved in the anti-folk movement, and he seems to have adopted the “anti-” mindset all the time.
Name a music genre and I bet he’s associated with it. Most of the awards he has won or been nominated for are in the “alternative” or “rock” categories – which basically means nothing anymore – but he sites hip-hop as a major influence as well as Latin music. Both are likely due to the neighborhoods where he grew up in poorer areas of LA. He’s electronica. He’s folk. He’s anti-folk. He’s funk, and soul, and blues. He studied R. Kelly (insert Trapped in the Closet reference here) and his R&B style. Pitchfork said his album Midnight Vultures “wonderfully blends Prince, Talking Heads, Paul’s Boutique [by the Beastie Boys], ‘Shake your Bon-Bon’ [by Ricky Martin], and Mathlete.”
Beck seems to have much higher standards for himself than the rest of the public does for him. He thought Loser was average, but the public loved it. He writes dozens of songs and then scraps them all and only uses 1 for the final record. There’s a story of Beck writing something like 40 songs, recording them on to cassettes and then leaving a briefcase full of said cassettes backstage at a show and losing them forever. Seemingly every record is a hodgepodge of old songs he’s recorded that he throws together when he feels it’s time to release more content. It’s like he’s Apple or something – he has everything everyone wants already locked and loaded, it’s just a matter of the rest of the world reaching the point where they’re asking for it.
All that to say, Beck’s all over the place. His transformation album to album is insane. Even back to back releases are can be night and day. His last album, Modern Guilt was produced by Danger Mouse (!!!) and sounds like it was produced by Danger Mouse. It’s funky and electronic. It’ll make you bump and groove.
That was 2008 and it’s been 6 years. So I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Morning Phase for a listen and a review. Only 29 more days til Grammy night. Gotta toughen up.
But wait – this isn’t the quirky, all-over-the-place Beck I was expecting. This is mellow. Chill. Subdued. This album is more like Iron and Wine or Sigur Ros or Guster than it is any of those bands Pitchfork mentioned back in 1999. Morning Phase is deep strings and sustained piano chords. It doesn’t jump around like Beck’s early records do, this one is cohesive throughout. It’s easy listening – an acoustic record you might put on after you wake up while you work on a sudoku or read the sports page and sip on coffee – especially if the temperature is in the single digits. It feels like a sunrise over a chilly pasture. I bet the directors of Pride and Prejudice wish they could go back in time and use this album for that juicy emotional scene when Darcy tells Elizabeth that his affections have not changed. (“You have bewitched me, body and soul, and I luh…I luff…“)
Apparently the foundational tracks for Morning Phase were written in 2005 – that’s nearly a decade ago, by the way – but Beck tabled them until 2012 when he began to expand on “Blackbird Chain” and “Country Down” (featuring a harmonica solo) and “Waking Light” which hold down the back half of the album, the latter coming at the end. Interesting that the songs that drive the whole album would end up on the B-Side. Here’s “Waking Light” the song that concludes the record…
Beck kinda looks like Michael Cera.
It’s hard to pick out other favorite tracks off an album that is so solid from start to finish (I’m having the same problem with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah too – love em all). I suppose “Blue Moon” is the single for a reason, so I should probably share it next.
It’s a sad and melancholy album, but there’s no denying that this album is beautiful and deserves to be nominated for a Grammy. If history has anything to say about it, Beck will probably lose out to a more mainstream album (read: Beyonce), but should take home other categorial honors instead. Morning Phase is up for Best Rock Album, Song and Performance (for “Blue Moon”) against the likes of Ryan Adams, Jack White, The Black Keys and Utoo.
If I were voting, I’d pick it for Best Rock Album of the year and give Song/Performance to Ryan Adams/Jack White for “Gimme Something Good” and “Lazaretto.” This album ought to be critiqued as a unit and not as an individual song. Blue Moon is nice, but the entire 47 minute album is where its at (see what i did there?).
For other reviews up for Album of the Year…