2014 columns, Music

Something rich and strange: Beck’s Morning Phase

by Chad Parkhill , February 26, 20143 Comments

Morning Phase

 

Few artists are as burdened by their pasts as Beck Hansen. The man responsible for ‘Loser’ released three albums’ worth of material (Stereopathic Soulmanure, Mellow Gold and One Foot in the Grave) in the year after it first hit the airwaves, as if to prove that he had been working at this music caper for a very long time and was, by extension, no one-hit wonder. While none of those albums became the cornerstone of his career, their sheer musical variety demonstrated something that has become a truism when talking about Beck’s output: namely, that he’s not an easy man to pin down.

Yet pinning him down is exactly what we keep on trying to do. His new album, Morning Phase, has almost exclusively been analysed in terms of its relationship to an earlier album, Sea Change – which itself was praised for the radical break it supposedly represents from the rest of his oeuvre, exemplified by the ragtag experimental funk of his breakthrough album, Odelay. The Australian’s Ian Shedden opens his review of Morning Phase by reminding us all of Sea Change’s virtues; the title of Max Lavergne’s review of Morning Phase on Junkee calls it ‘Beck’s second Sea Change’; Paul MacInnes in The Guardian calls it ‘another Sea Change’. The Daily Mississippian’s website even uses the cover art of Sea Change in a story about Morning Phase.

To be fair, there are good reasons for any critic to compare the two albums. Morning Phase’s first song , ‘Morning’, opens with Beck strumming the very same acoustic guitar chord as the one that leads Sea Change’s opener, ‘The Golden Age’, and like ‘The Golden Age’, ‘Morning’ is filled with gently tinkling glockenspiel notes that leaven the song’s almost-funereal pace. Other songs such as lead single ‘Blue Moon’ or ‘Unforgiven’ are similarly cut from the same cloth as Sea Change.

It’s also worth mentioning that the press release that announced Morning Phase explicitly called it ‘a companion piece of sorts’ to Sea Change. It’s clear that Beck himself – and his camp of record label support workers – explicitly want to position Morning Phase in the same lineage as Sea Change. But is this the best way to understand Morning Phase?

One argument against reading Morning Phase in light of its predecessor is that in doing so, the critic risks missing some of its defining features. A close listen to the album reveals a wealth of influences beyond Beck’s own past glories: the fingerpicked guitar and simple, plangent melody of ‘Turn Away’ recalls early Simon and Garfunkel; ‘Country Down’ tips its hat to Neil Young; and ‘Wave’ recalls the drama of Björk (some sharp-eared punters at NPR have noticed the similarity between it and ‘Hunter’). Sea Change worked from a relatively homogenous sonic palette; Morning Phase casts a much wider net.

More worrisome, though, is the way the comparison sets up an implicit hierarchy of Beck’s albums – casting his career as divided between the ‘serious’ Beck of Sea Change and the ‘playful’ Beck of Odelay, and privileging the former over the latter. It’s a division that doesn’t stack up for a number of reasons: where, for instance, does the relatively dour but sonically experimental Modern Guilt fit into this taxonomy? What of Song Reader, the book of sheet music that Beck released through McSweeney’s, the presentation of which is highly unorthodox but the songs in which are highly traditional?

Such a division also obscures the playfulness in Beck’s traditionalism and the seriousness of his experimentation – this is a man, after all, who wrote a Bob Dylan pastiche about Satan giving him a taco, and whose critique of post-colonialism exploitation of the third world came wrapped in a gaudy layer of Brazilian tropicália.

To some extent it’s impossible for critics not to construct a ‘career’ when appraising a musician’s work – readers want to know how the new relates to the old, to be told what to expect (hopefully without spoiling the pleasure of discovery). And its certainly fair to assume that Beck has a large number of listeners who genuinely do only care for his more ‘serious’ side, for whom the comparison between Morning Phase and Sea Change would be a useful public service announcement. But it seems particularly unfair to pin down a musician whose career has consisted of a series of principled refusals to be reduced to the artist others expect.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The AustralianThe Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

ACO logo




  • Geoff Orton

    Yeah, but is it any good?

marilyn-ulysses

Reading Marilyn reading Ulysses: when celebrities are photographed with books

In 1955, photographer Eve Arnold snapped a now-iconic image of American actress Marilyn Monroe, in her bathers on a Long Island playground, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the sixty years since, the photo has prompted continual suspicion in those who see literature and celebrity as mutually exclusive – was she really reading it? Read more »

capote-dog

The Outsiders: The early stories of Truman Capote

The recent publication of The Early Stories of Truman Capote – a collection of newly-discovered short stories from the archives of the New York Public Library – reveals the preoccupations of the adolescent Capote, drawn to drifters, exiles, and others living on society’s fringes. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.
(AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.)
SARA GILBERT

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »

SPEAR_0014_Edward_Mulvihill copy 2

Lauren Carroll Harris

Eyes Open Dreaming: Spear and the potential for an Australian art cinema

Commercial success has long been prized as Australian cinema’s salve, and the values of that commerce-based vision of success have deeply permeated the national conversation. Spear sets this conversation aside entirely, raising in its stead the possibility of an art cinema in Australia. Read more »

CAROL

You Could Burn a House Down: Todd Haynes’s Carol

For many years, lesbians in fiction were punished for their social transgressions, condemned to a life of solitude, insanity, feigned heterosexuality and/or suicide. Radically, Carol portrays a lesbian love that doesn’t destroy or diminish its subjects, but enables them to transform, to grow and to be free. Read more »

Bowie - The Image  1

The Art of Immortality: David Bowie and The Image

With the news this week of David Bowie’s death at the age of 69 from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the shared, mass hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost 50 years old. Read more »

21EMMYJP6-master675

Killings Columnists Pick Their Best of 2015

As 2015 concludes, we also farewell our fabulous 2015 Killings columnists. They’ve entertained and delighted us all year with fortnightly columns on culture, politics and society, and now they offer us a wrap up of their highlights for 2015 across their respective fields. Read more »

18-gilmore-girls.w1200.h630

Tim McGuire

Progressive to a Point: Homophobia and Gilmore Girls

You can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success. Read more »

PLM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Sydney - January 20, 2016: This Is How We Die perfomed during the 2016 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Impossible Futures: Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die

These two shows ask: how hard do we need to listen? In each, minutiae can be discarded, at least in slivers of time. Tomorrow’s Parties and This is How We Die each allow your brain to detach for a moment: to spin off into the different worlds they create, before returning once again, as best you can, to the work at hand. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »

_85072354_hamlet3-pa

Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »