Selling nostalgia can be a dicey proposition when it comes to new albums.
Apart from the fresh material living up to its predecessor, there’s the danger that the former makes the latter pale in comparison or, worse, lowers the esteem in which the first album is held.
All that to say, if you’re going to invoke fond memories of what’s rightly regarded as a high artistic watermark, you’d better be packing nothing short of a masterpiece.
With Morning Phase, Beck doesn’t quite scale the heights of 2002’s Sea Change, but he comes close. (Wisely, the musician’s publicity machine is couching Phase as a “companion piece” to Sea Change, rather than an explicit sequel.)
Change, an album conceived in the wake of Beck’s break-up with longtime girlfriend Leigh Limon, was a brilliant synthesis of the singer-songwriter’s early oddball folk and acute heartbreak, resulting in elegantly devastating songs that stand as some of the finest he’s ever recorded.
Morning Phase isn’t quite so desolate, nor does it successfully sustain its bursts of beauty (of which, it should be noted, there are several, like instrumental snippets Cycle and Phase, as well as Blue Moon and the penultimate track Country Down).
Beck has settled down, almost to the point of inactivity ( Phase, his 12th studio effort, is his first proper album in six years) and instead of sifting through shattered love, he is instead pondering what lies ahead.
The crises are existential rather than romantic this time around, and subtracting Change’s vivid emotional context makes Phase a more distant, somewhat chillier experience. The two works are further linked by Beck, who produced Phase, again recruiting many of the players who gave life to Change: Smokey Hormel, Joey Waronker and Beck’s father, arranger David Campbell, help sonically evoke Sea Change, even as Phase pushes further afield into country.
If all this sounds as though Beck has somehow made a bad album or lazily regurgitated a past triumph, he hasn’t. The year is still young, but it’s a safe bet Morning Phase will appear on many best-of lists in 10 months’ time.
It’s just that Morning Phase, for all its unassuming splendor, doesn’t approach the peerless heights of the masterwork it’s being aligned with. If you’re going to trade on glad reminisces, that’s the risk you take.