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New music: Beck shows off songwriting chops on shimmering 'Morning Phase'

Beck - Morning Phase
Beck - Morning Phase
Capital Records

Beck - Morning Phase

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“See the turncoat on his knees,” Beck sings on “Blue Moon,” the first single from his new album Morning Phase. “A vagabond that no one sees.”

It’s not clear who Beck is singing about in this particular song, but the term “vagabond” so suits the 43-year-old musician/ producer/ songwriter, it could someday serve as a one-word eulogy. Over the course of his now two-decade career, Beck has been an Alternative Nation icon, a frisky falsetto funk freak, a ramshackle folk singer, and a non-sequitur-spouting rapper. When his contract with Interscope Records ended after his last studio album, 2008’s somewhat underwhelming Modern Guilt, Beck’s restless creative spirit and deeply entrenched fanbase made him a likely candidate for the Radiohead model of fully independent music production and distribution. It was somewhat surprising, then, that he followed his awesome Record Club series and the McSweeney’s-released songbook Song Reader by signing with Capitol Records, the same major label Radiohead happily fled after Hail to the Thief.

The opening notes of Morning Phase make it clear why Beck went back to the majors: This is a grand album whose musical scope and sensibility harkens back to an era when recording the string parts in the basement of the legendary Capitol Records building in Los Angeles indicated an aesthetic decision rather than a grab at the brass ring.

In Beck’s catalog, the closest companion to Morning Phase is Sea Change, his 2002 album and a quintessential breakup record. But in terms of tone and feeling, it most closely recalls Bryter Layter by Nick Drake; both albums capture an elusive emotion as they gallop along the crumbling precipice between whimsy and heartbreak.

A sense of transition pervades the album, yet it’s different from the emptiness and confusion that characterized Sea Change. It’s more like the inevitable resolution of a chapter, the way light breaks darkness at dawn. “These are the words we use to say goodbye,” Beck sings over plucked banjos and picked guitars on “Say Goodbye.” “I will wait, take a turn/ sort it out, let it burn.”

With nearly every song featuring shimmering harmonies, Beck’s voice has never sounded better. “Blue Moon” showcases his multi-tracked vocals to great effect, as the chorus ripples with his yearning plea, “Oh, please don’t leave me on my own.” Like several other tracks, the stunning “Waking Light” benefits from a meticulous arrangement and unconventional structure that’s more cyclical than linear.

If Morning Phase makes a persuasive case for Beck as a top-tier music producer (and it most certainly does, along with his other recent work with Stephen Malkmus and especially Charlotte Gainsbourg), it makes an even more compelling argument for Beck as one of our best songwriters. “Don’t Let It Go” and “Country Down” both sound like popular standards upon first listen, while the album’s best song, “Blackbird Chain,” bobs and bounds with a sophistication that marks a true craftsman. There’s a very lived-in sound to all of the songs on Morning Phase and its relatively direct lyrics (at least by the standards of the man who coined the term “chainsmoke Kansas flash-dance ass-pants”) make it his most conventional-sounding album to date.

Conventional-sounding might not read like a compliment when you’re talking about an artist as unique and eclectic as Beck, but post-Odelay, he’s always been one to explore themes and ideas over the course of an album, rather than song-to-song. With its soft hues and pensive mood, Morning Phase isn’t a record you can throw on for any occasion (then again, the same could be said for Midnight Vultures). But if you’re shambling home at dawn after saying goodbye to a close friend you might not see again for some time, you couldn’t ask for a better soundtrack.