Talkhouse writers are musicians, and they write with a passion, insight, poetry and empathy that you’re just not going to find anywhere else. That’s why we’d rank the best writing in the Talkhouse with the best music writing anywhere. This week, we’re celebrating some of our favorite Talkhouse pieces of 2014.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief
I don’t know if jealousy is the right way to describe how I feel about Beck. He does, however, remind me of my own shortcomings. I don’t know if I covet what he has, in the dark, Biblical sense, but I do wish I had a functioning studio (and an assistant or two) in my garden.
But, y’know, we all make choices, and my choices, for whatever reason, have led me in tight, anxious circles that are reflected in my music, which is, as a consequence, rarely as expansive as Mr. Beck’s. So, first off, when listening to Beck I have to overcome this flood of mixed feelings — I have to put myself aside for awhile.
I’ve listened to Morning Phase first thing in the morning for a week. My first impression: Sea Change 2. The opening slow symphonic whooshes recall the harmonic palette of that record, so the songs, at first, only trigger memories of “The Golden Age” and “Lost Cause.” Sea Change was a record that drove me crazy. Why? It was too fucking good, that’s why. In 2002 (the year of its release) I was picking up the pieces from some disaster in my life and not making my masterpiece. Meanwhile, by all accounts, Beck was.
But, also, Sea Change felt both too good and not good enough. Does saying “not good enough” speak to a personal and perhaps petty inability to be truly absorbed by it, or were the textures and words not conspiring in an emotional tidal wave, commanding my full attention and bringing me to the edge of openly weeping? I didn’t know, so I revisited the album.
And you know what? Time has definitely brought us together, Sea Change and I. It’s not making me cry, but it’s amazing. There’s far more going on stylistically than the atmospheric folk that characterizes its best-known (to me, anyway) songs. “Paper Tiger,” for one, is another of Beck’s perfect beasts, a masterful mix of a dozen styles and flat-out gorgeous.
So: Morning Phase. From the opening splat of the snare, my white guy comfort zone is massaged by its steady plod. (Think Neil Young’s Harvest.) Morning Phase keeps that pace throughout. Turns out it’s not actually Sea Change 2 but it does further explore the tantalizing Gordon Lightfoot feel of “The Golden Age” and the more Neil-like songs on that album. In a literal sense, it’s “cosmic American music.” And “cosmic American music” is the ultimate aspiration of a songwriter such as I. First used to describe Gram Parsons and his International Submarine Band back in the mid ’60s (by Gram himself, I think), it’s country music readdressed and spread across the sky, modernized. Beck’s country music is warm and psychedelic, familiar and challenging. I suspect Gram himself would have been knocked out by it.
The new Beck record is an exploration into just one side of his musical persona, of course. He’s probably on to his next “phase” by now. But, at heart, he is a fucking great folk singer (his first handful of records demonstrate that) and by extension a great cosmic American artist. I’ve seen him do jaw-dropping recreations of Hank Williams and Elliott Smith in a live setting. He was part of the “anti-folk” movement in NYC back in the early ’90s and his off-the-cuff songs from that era are still among my Beck favorites (“Steve Threw Up,” “Fume,” etc.). The songs on Morning Phase are meticulously crafted and laid their eggs in my brain quickly. The memories of “Golden Age” are giving way to “Say Goodbye” and I suspect that, in time, the whole album will unveil its gifts. But, as with Sea Change, it’ll probably take me another 10 years before I can properly give Morning Phase its due. The strange thing is that, though I’ve listened to Morning Phase several times, I still don’t know what the words we use to say goodbye are. His voice is front and center, as it should be, but I have a hard time following the lyrics.
I’m still puzzling over why I can’t engage with his music on an emotional level. I thought for a second that maybe new music can’t make me cry but then I got a link to a new Low song on Facebook (I like FB for that reason, people posting favorite songs, etc.) and “Just Make It Stop,” from last year’s The Invisible Way, has me tearing up by the second verse. Low explores a similar vein as Morning Phase without the prowess of Beck’s players or the awesome scope of his vision, but still, it hits me were I live. There is an urgency to Low that comes through in even their most glacial music. By contrast, Beck is so firmly in control that when he’s at the wheel I curl up in the back seat and drift off. Low has me up and looking around, anxious and aware as we, possibly, plunge off a cliff.
The thing that I equate most with Beck is generosity. He uses all the resources he has to make the most interesting music he can. After starting this piece, I headed out to the garage and started recording again. Beck reaches and so should I.