Artists have been trailed out of the box canyons north of Los Angeles by enemies, real or imagined, for decades. Jules Amthor, Chandler’s sociopathic psychic, cornered Phillip Marlow in one of these canyons. Joan Didion haunted the curves of the PCH in her white corvette and Neil Young was pursued by an army of mutant machine gun toting dune buggies down the dunes and onto the beach.
Other than the need for record sales and lunch, what is chasing Beck out of Malibu these days?
Beck is among us again, staring out at his listeners from the cover of “Morning Phase”, his recently released record, and his first for new label home, Capitol Records. His twelfth long-player dropped this spring and — other than the fact that it is a gorgeous sounding record — I’m not sure what to make of it.
As we have all heard by now, thanks to an old school roll-out by Capitol, “Morning Phase” is a follow-up to 2002’s “Sea Change”. Many of the same musicians were reconvened for the recording sessions, however it is a noteworthy fact that Nigel Godrich did not produce this time. “Morning Phase” was produced and recorded by Beck himself and he has created a sonic landscape that is equally enveloping as ‘Sea Change’ in terms of depth and variety of the sounds.
The fact that Beck is again staring at us – confronting us, really, is telling. Typically, Beck’s album covers feature a disembodied figure cut off at the neck or groin that may or may not be the artist himself. The character on the cover is a mask or meme that mirrors the music contained within. It is only Beck’s two confessional, ‘non-ironic’ albums (Mutations and Sea Change) that feature the artist rendered as himself directly addressing the camera, posing with some Art. He is telling us (again) that the time has returned to take him and his music seriously. So we’ve got that – the serious face and the big floppy hat – to prepare us for another dose of confessional lite psychedelia.
It is here, with the sound and cover art, that the similarities with “Sea Change” end.
“Sea Change” dropped in 2002 to almost no fanfare or marketing. This calculation was surely at Beck’s insistence and at the time seemed clever. Today, anti-marketing is done with such frequency (see the new Beyonce) that no marketing is the new marketing. In intervening years “Sea Change” has become one of Beck’s most broadly popular albums. At the time, Beck attributed the mood and themes of the music to the breakup with his girlfriend. The album can be read as a cycle of songs with memory and loss at its emotional core. Critics are again using the mystical term “song-cycle” to describe “Morning Phase”. Indeed, the first song on the album, an instrumental overture, is entitled ‘Cycle’ to reinforce this reading. This time, however, there is no emotional core or central narrative to the music. Song-cycle, in this album’s case, therefore, is employed as a code word by critic and artist to mean “good, meaningful music by one of our most visionary song writers.”
At the time, “Sea Change” was a revelation. Here was a Beck that we had never heard before and thought not possible. His music during this period was seemingly stripped of irony and injected with a heartbreak and pathos. To many listeners this placed Beck in a new category of artist; one occupied by songwriters such as Nick Drake, Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young.
Although it is usually a blind alley to compare Beck with other contemporary artists, listening to “Morning Phase” back to back with “Lost in the Dream”, The War on Drugs new album is illuminating. From the first couplet of the first song on “Lost in the Dream”, the Philadelphia band stakes out similar thematic and sonic territory. We have the same blasted landscapes, the same tension between synthesizers and traditional ‘country’ instrumentation within the same song, and an eerie sense of detachment and melancholia prevails throughout the album. My prejudices in check, the War on Drugs wins the day. The music is more immediate, inviting and ends up making a more contemporary statement. Instead of watching UFOs at 4am in Joshua Tree with Beck, we end up in a place closer to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ with its South Jersey dawn highways and red balls rising over refinery towers.
Perhaps it is helpful to think about these two new records in relation to Neil Young’s “Ditch Trilogy” of the early 1970’s. Young’s three consecutive albums, “Time Fades Away”, “On The Beach”, and “Tonight’s The Night” are revered for their dark, haunting brilliance and their apocalyptic visions of the underside of the California lifestyle, drug abuse and stardom. This was the same era that writer Joan Didion, and the pop star David Crosby had similar visions. In “The White Album”, Didion saw burning hillsides, listless housewives fucking surfers and killers on the loose. In 1971, David Crosby released his first solo record entitled “If I Could Only Remember My Name”. The album’s nine songs are shot through with drug-induced paranoia, cops in rear view mirrors and failure. The music on the record is pretty damn good, too.
Many of the songs on “Morning Phase” are clearly channeling the orchestral and country rock being produced in California in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70s. Gone, though, is any edge or contemporary narrative, which might make this music more engaging. What we end up with is a softer sound that is closer to Firefall or Poco than it is to the Byrds with Gram Parsons.
Two decades ago I was driving through Atlanta to the liquor store with my friend Bil. We were headed to buy the fixings for a new batch of Fish House punch when “E-Bow The Letter” came on the radio. The song was the first single from REM’s new album, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” and at the time REM was still a pretty big deal around Georgia. Both Bil and I commiserated on an increasing sense of confusion and disgust with the band. Where exactly had REM, and its leader lyricist, Michael Stipe, gone off the rails and become so goddamned boring and oblique? Although I haven’t yet pinpointed the REM album when the shark and the tracks were jumped, I can say that I now feel the same about Beck. I’ve no idea what he is singing about on “Morning Phase” and if this music can’t move me, then it makes me wonder if I was ever a fan at all.
In May of 1966, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, including all then current members of the Velvet Underground, boarded an airplane for Los Angeles to participate in a several week residency at the Sunset Strip nightclub, The Trip. At that moment California was careening towards the Summer of Love and The Trip was at the center of Los Angeles’ particular take on psychedelia. What Angelenos were not expecting, however, was the Velvet’s intensely bad trip. Lou Reed’s visions of speed addled sexualized violence coupled with Gerald Malanga’s bullwhip performance frankly and decisively bummed The Trip goers out. The Velvets ended up playing only one night on the Strip before the residency was promptly cancelled for invented reasons. In 10 days they were to drag it all up to San Francisco only to experience similar results.
I’ve got a mind to go see me some Beck when he hits the east coast this summertime. What interests me is the makeup of the backing band that will support him in touring these songs. His 2002 tour in support of ‘Sea Change’, in which the Flaming Lips agreed to be his backup band, was the stuff of legend and a now well-documented disaster. Egos clashed on stage, Beck fell ill in the middle of the tour and the whole thing was scrapped about midway through. Beck eventually had his feelings hurt by Wayne Coyne after being dismissed as a dick in a major publication. Although the match up was brilliant in concept, it probably didn’t work simply because the Lips are Entertainers first and foremost. The Lips’ style of three ring circus live show was a stupid fit with the ‘Sea Change’ material and everyone should have known that. Audiences were confused and Beck ended up coming off as a self-important buzz kill on stage. How Beck chooses to present the post-apocalyptic pastoral vision of “Morning Phase” on tour will be interesting.
Dave Coon: East Coast Music Desk