3 stars (out of 4)
It’s rare for a famous singer-songwriter to collaborate with a father on a new album. It’s rarer still for the patriarch to nearly steal the show from his progeny.
But that’s what happens on “Morning Phase” (Capitol), Beck’s first studio album in six years. Beck’s dad, David Campbell, isn’t a star, but he has built a brilliant behind-the-scenes career in music as a composer and musical arranger on hundreds of albums, including several by his son. Campbell is at the top of his game on “Morning Phase,” and his exquisite string arrangements conjure its most striking moments.
For Beck, the album marks a holding pattern, a deliberate return to the tone and texture of his 2002 album “Sea Change,” on which Campbell also worked. “Sea Change” was exactly that for the singer, a turn toward the sincere and the introspective from a musician previously celebrated for his clever, mix-and-mash approach to lyrics and structure.
Whereas “Sea Change” lamented a break-up with sometimes heart-breaking insight, “Morning Phase” comes off as its less-volatile cousin. The album’s melancholy might point back to Beck’s lengthy hiatus from music, including a period when he was incapacitated by a spinal injury. The music moves in slow motion, and at times threatens to bog down completely. The album should come with a warning sticker: Do not play while driving or operating heavy machinery.
But in more solitary listening environments, the album’s shimmering beauty gently announces itself. Campbell’s strings suggest distant waves moving across the horizon on the opening instrumental “Cycle,” a swoon-worthy set-up for the undulating “Morning.” That theme drifts back on the album’s most masterful moment, “Wave,” in which strings envelop Beck’s mantra of “isolation.” Another string interlude, “Phase,” transitions the album into the sunlight, the mourning giving way to morning.
The rest makes for a lustrous if somewhat static listening experience. Beck’s blend of acoustic instruments, twinkling percussion and wordless vocal harmonies feels weightless, evanescent, sometimes lovely. But when David Campbell’s strings make themselves heard, “Morning Phase” becomes something more than just a sequel to Beck’s best album.
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