Who Is Beck, Really?
Two decades into his career, it’s harder than ever to pin down what he's all about. But with his excellent new album Morning Phase, that might not actually matter anymore.
Beck Hansen has spent the past two decades building one of the best and most stylistically diverse bodies of work of any musician of his generation, and still, after all this time, it's hard to get a sense of who he is. Whether he's singing sad folk songs, playing postmodern funk, rapping, or rocking, there's a strange void at the center of nearly everything he makes. This isn't to say that Beck is vague and anonymous – his voice is instantly recognizable, and there's a certain indescribable Beck-ness to everything he makes – but rather that he can't help but seem aloof.
The odd side-effect of Beck's remarkable versatility as a musician is that his formal decisions often become the central focus of his work, and so each genre or mode he plays with ends up in scare quotes: This is Beck doing "'70s funk;" this is Beck playing a "psychedelic rock song;" this is Beck as a "confessional singer-songwriter." This approach serves him well when he embraces irony and a fluid, ambiguous identity. During his commercial peak in the late '90s, this mostly meant exploring the magpie aesthetics of hip-hop and mashing elements of seemingly disparate genres into the surreal, vibrant pop of Odelay and Midnite Vultures.
The latter, his masterpiece, seems like a surreal, goofy take on funk, hip-hop, and R&B on its surface, but is actually a brilliant set of songs about the ways modern men struggle to define themselves and draw on images from pop culture to either access aspects of who they are, or hide the parts that are confused and embarrassing. On this record, the void at the center of Beck's art is the entire point, and moments of neurotic anxiety and genuine vulnerability – "I want to know if I'm worth your time, there's so much to do before you die" "I don't wanna die tonight," "I'm a full grown man but I'm not afraid to cry" – poke through the music's onslaught of absurdity.
From the '00s onward, Hansen's approach to genre has shifted away from irony, novelty, and invention, and towards an earnest ambition to master as many modes of pop as possible. In the time between his 2008 psychedelic rock album Modern Guilt and its long-delayed followup Morning Phase, he spent years working on and then scrapping proper Beck albums while releasing a steady stream of projects seemingly designed to reduce his presence in his own work. He produced recordings by Bat for Lashes, Stephen Malkmus, Thurston Moore, and Charlotte Gainsbourg; interpreted the songs of other musicians (you really should hear his flawless rendition of The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You"); and wrote music for his fans to perform by releasing a book of sheet music for songs he'd never recorded. It's clear enough that at some point in the recent past, Beck just got sick of being Beck, and tried to work around himself.
So it makes some sense that Morning Phase, his first major work in five years, is a record that feels utterly devoid of ego. The melodies are lovely but understated; the arrangements are artful but pointedly simple. It's an easy album to tune out, but it's also the sort of music that can sit comfortably in the background of your life for weeks and gradually seeps into your consciousness. If, in the words of the critic Manny Farber, Odelay and Midnite Vultures are examples of flashy, bold elephant art, Morning Phase is subtle, gently subversive termite art.
It's easy to describe Morning Phase as a sequel to Beck's quiet, melancholy 2002 record Sea Change, but while there are aesthetic similarities and nearly identical personnel, it seems inaccurate to sell this as a depressing record. Yes, there are notes of sadness and regret over the course of its 13 tracks, but it's all rather muted. Whereas Sea Change was written in the immediate aftermath of a painful breakup and has the distraught yet blank feeling of clinical depression, the pain in Morning Phase – particularly on cuts like "Say Goodbye" and "Blue Moon" – feels like it's been long since processed and accepted. The only tension in the record is in figuring out which parts speak to a genuine, newfound serenity for Beck, and which parts are just him giving a cold, thousand-yard stare.
On Morning Phase, the aloof quality that suggested dead-eyed misery in Beck's starker work pleasantly reads as an egoless, mindful state. The beauty of "Wave," the album's centerpiece, lies in its stillness, and the way Beck sings "if I surrender and I don't fight this wave / No, I won't go under / I'll only get carried away" over droning strings with a tone of complete zen detachment. 15 years after the manic, absurdist masquerade party of Midnite Vultures, the question of who Beck is or what he means becomes irrelevant. He's telling you that he doesn't really care about that sort of thing anymore, and neither should you.