Beck’s “Morning Phase”: A Country or Americana Album?

“I played the Hollywood Pantages Theatre a year or so ago and Beck opened the show for me. So I listened to him behind, backstage. I was so impressed with the way he could do Appalachian music. You know, hillbilly? He’s really good at it. And then of course his own songs. And I especially liked “Rowboat.” It sounded like something I might have written or might have done in the 60’s. You know, when I was kind of going through some weird times.” — Johnny Cash (watch)

Johnny Cash went on to record Beck’s pedal steel doused “Rowboat” on his American Recordings-era Unchained album from 2002.

beck-morning-phaseIt’s been my contention for years that if genre bending pioneer Beck ever made a straight up country record, it could have a similar effect as when The Byrds, heavily influenced by Gram Parsons, released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, allowing young hip listeners outside of country’s borders to realize the virtues of the genre. Maybe Beck doesn’t have the type of sway over young hip listeners he once did, but when the initial chatter about his first album in five years called Morning Phase began to surface, it seemed like it might be a candidate for Beck’s long-awaited dedicated dive into country. “The songs are coming out of a California tradition,” Beck told Rolling Stone. “I’m hearing the Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Gram Parsons, Neil Young the bigger idea of what that sound is to me.”

It’s interesting that a lot of the talk into today’s popular music is about the blurring of genre lines and the lack of proper labels for music, when this has been Beck’s medium for going on 25 years. Today’s machinations of genre bending come prepackaged in explanations of how they’re “innovative” and how music must “evolve”, when Beck was doing this stuff, and in much better form before many of these artists were even born. And his genre-bending baseline wasn’t Jason Aldean and T-Pain, but Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It’s Beck’s respect for the roots of all music, including country, that make him so adept at shifting between genres with ease, and blending influences without disrespecting their origination.

But as hopeful as one may have been that Morning Phase would finally be that Beck foray into country or even Americana we’d been waiting for, neither of these terms is really a fair way to portray this new album. Instead Morning Phase is much more akin to Beck’s subdued and aptly-named Sea Change album from 2002, with a very spatial, atmospheric, and moody approach. Though certainly the California country influences can be inferred throughout Morning Phase, and some mandolin, steel guitar, and other country elements make appearances, this is really a string-filled, emotionally-heavy and sonically-airy album this is meant most for it’s artistic expression and resonant mood that lingers with the listener.

Morning Phase is an audiophile’s dream, with full, rich, vibrant hues of sound, recommended to be imbibed through a big stereo system or high grade headphones. Beck reportedly has made the album available for free streaming on airplanes, which seems very apropros to the spirit and mood of this project. Whereas many of the Byrds and Gram Parsons influences that Beck alluded to being included are things you must listen for, Neil Young’s propensity to simply let chords and the tension and resolution they afford tell the story, is something that’s definitely at the heart of Morning Phase, and principally comprises the two string tracks “Cycle” and “Phase”.

A couple of the issues that linger with the album is that a few of the melodies feel a little recycled, like with the songs “Blue Moon” and “Say Goodbye,” but maybe they’re subtle enough not to be picked up commonly. Morning Phase also feels a little too much like Beck’s previous album Sea Change to the point where it doesn’t have that stark sense of originality you’re usually greeted with by a Beck project. Even the two album covers have a commonality, though this may have been on purpose.

At the risk of sounding obvious, the song “Country Down” is the one track on Morning Phase that country listeners should zero in on if they’re looking for something specific, but this album really doesn’t have a sour note or shallow moment throughout, and you can’t go wrong with giving the entire effort a chance. It’s certainly not country, and not really Americana either in my estimation, but that in no way should hinder Morning Phase from being considered good.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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