I like Beck - everybody likes Beck - but the only record of his that's ever struck a genuine chord with me is Sea Change. Imagine my delight, then, on reading the press release for Morning Phase, which describes this first new album in six years as a 'companion piece' to that very record. By all accounts, 2014 should see Beck making up for recent lost time - there's another album he wants to have on shelves before the year's out - and the decision to release Morning Phase first makes sense; if it's received anything like Sea Change was, it should guarantee him a relatively low-key return to the spotlight.
One of the ways in which Sea Change was a major departure from Beck's previous work was its use of live instrumentation, with none of the heavy sampling or electronic effects that we'd come to associate with his Odelay heyday. It wasn't just that it was live though; he'd specifically chosen a warm palette; acoustic guitars, gentle piano, vocals that were crisp, but didn't cut through too jarringly. It's a sonic approach that he's largely sought to replicate here; after a brief intro, opener-proper 'Morning' nails the record's colours to the mast. It treads quietly, steadily, but doesn't meander - there's enough subtle touches to hold your ear. It's a song held together by delicately soaring harmonies, a recurring theme on this album.
That Beck has managed to make a record indebted to the subtleties of harmony is testament to his versatility; I don't think anybody familiar with 'New Pollution' or 'Devils Haircut' would've had him down as the kind of musician that can do nuance quite this well. Not that there aren't flashes of his old self - 'Say Goodbye's matter-of-fact vocal style is familiar, and there's snatches of electronic effects, including what sound like looped harmonies on 'Heart is a Drum' and the reverb-heavy piano of 'Unforgiven'.
There's orchestral leanings, too; strings rise and fall like slow sirens on the unsettling 'Wave', providing suitably sinister backing to repeated croons of "isolation". They're present on 'Turn Away', too, and partner trumpets at the climax of 'Blackbird Chain', but they're not intended for any kind of grandiose purpose; like everything else on this record, these orchestral touches are handled with an admirable restraint, used for colour and punctuation rather than anything more all-encompassing.
Sea Change was largely inspired by a recent break-up, lending its lyrics a personal flavour that saw Beck on more sincere form than he was known for at that point. There's some similarly bleak subject matter on Morning Phase; recent single 'Blue Moon' is a rumination on loneliness, and 'Don't Let It Go' hints at an insecure psychological state - "don't let them turn your mind inside out." Much of the record, though, burns with a quiet optimism; 'Heart Is a Drum' champions togetherness in the face of adversity, and 'Say Goodbye's attempts to find the positives in parting fit neatly with its chirpy acoustic guitar. 'Country Down', meanwhile, is drenched in fond nostalgia, and justifies its titling with a neat harmonica solo at the midpoint.
Morning Phase is a terrific mood piece and a worthy follow-up, even if in spirit only, to Sea Change; it lacks the gripping unease of that album, but replaces it capably with genuine warmth and a sunnier outlook. I strongly get the impression that this is an album destined to fly under the radar, especially with a more characteristic Beck record apparently mere months away; that might just have been the intention, though, for an album that can claim subtlety to be its strongest suit.