Listening to … Beck, ‘Morning Phase’

Beck poses for a portrait at his home on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in Malibu, Calif.  Beck Hansen wants you to think about the way music has changed over the last century and what that means about how human beings engage each other these days. Laboring over the intricate and ornate details of his new "Song Reader" sheet music project, he was struck by how social music used to be something we've lost in the age of ear buds. © Invision/AP photo by Katy Winn.

Beck poses for a portrait at his home on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in Malibu, Calif.  © Invision/AP photo by Katy Winn.

As the Beach Boys-esque harmonies of Morning Phase came through my headphones, I had to remind myself that my favorite Beck album was Odelay, the 1996 record that was on the leading edge of a trend toward mixing hip-hop, traditional music, analog aesthetic and rock influences into an infectious mix.

Music Review BeckThat bears reminding because Morning Phase is so far from the raucous and loose feel of that era of Beck’s output, but it is every bit as skillful and brilliant.

Rather than pushing new ideas, Morning Phase does feel more like a channeling of influences, be they the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd or 1970s era clean-cut country. Beck is definitely mellowing on this album, but it is a most intriguing brand of mellow. Set Wave and Don’t Let Go side by side, which the Loser actually does, and you go from an enveloping orchestral wash to finger-picked guitar and voice.

If there is a revelation here, it is Beck’s voice, not always a distinctive feature of his more idiosyncratic work. But here, it is on full display, moving from bare solo to soaring self-harmonization.

Here’s what ties Beck’s best work together: You get caught up in a common mood, and its only when you really start listening you hear how it has been crafted to take you seamlessly from one style to another. Morning Phase may subject Beck to the criticism many artists like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson get when they explore quieter music later in their careers, that they are going soft. But this is clearly a next artistic step in the 43-year-old’s career.

Beck has made a variety of music since his breakout 20 years ago, but this latest effort could borrow the title from that album that brought him and his hit Loser to our attention: Mellow Gold.

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