A great clue to assist in the decoding of Beck’s Morning Phase lies in the packaging of his last proper full-length, Modern Guilt. Released in 2008 with an unbearably au courant title, its paranoia was more in tune with the America of the Cold War, and its cover was inescapably an homage to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Crisp Swiss typography and a shot-from-the-hip castoff photograph was an elegant visual counterpoint to the music within, produced by Danger Mouse and rich with rubbery synths and psych rock tropes.
Modern Guilt represented the lowest bitter. Now, Beck extends his fascination with the great American songbook one step further, taking in the filtered rays of Californian sunlight and the folksy fog the Coen brothers mine in Inside Llewyn Davis. He marries these two palettes, with their emotional maturity and temperance, to songs that sound eerily familiar, namely because he has written many of them before, on 2002’s Sea Change. And so we begin with “Morning”, an unsubtle Xerox of “The Golden Age” with the same ghostly sheen and gloopy reverb, the same slurred vocals that approximate digital manipulation.
Elsewhere, the strums of guitar travel along well-trodden downward paths, each fleck of plastic plectrum on steel string captured between panes of Perspex. Washes of strings, arranged by Beck’s father as on the earlier album, decay gently and meld with quasar pulses of synthesizer. Electric pianos are always softly intoned, as if soundtracking a Sofia Ford Coppola film. Continuing the loping, looping state of affairs, “Say Goodbye” recalls Air on Talkie Walkie, an album produced (like Sea Change) by Nigel Godrich, he of whooshing sound-effects and post-OK Computer affectations.
Recently, Beck wrote a book of sheet music, and expected others to perform the songs therein. Now, he seems happy to replay his own back-catalogue.
Admittedly, the sad-sack self-indulgence of Sea Change has gone, replaced by a grown-up’s reflections on mortality, and the finite nature of love. “I’m so tired of being alone,” sings Beck by way of introduction to the tumbling, celestial “Blue Moon”, but far from sounding deflated, he strikes the pose of a grizzled fighter. Atop a sweetly-arpeggiated mandolin part, and occasional bassy columns of piano, he surveys the landscape of ruination from a position of apotheosis, alone but resolved.
Around the middle, Morning Phase approaches greatness. The astrally phased piano in “Unforgiven”, punctuated by a 1990s literate hip hop beat, moves along a timeless chord progression before being swallowed up by an arrangement that rotates and interlocks familiar components in new formations. All the while, Beck’s achingly slow, beatific vocals are constant and unerring. A song later, “Wave” is sombre and nocturnal. Beck repeats the word “isolation” like Ian Curtis on dramamine. The troubling string arrangement threatening to overwhelm him is deeply portentous, and will in an alternate future provide a fitting backdrop for some scene of time-travelling heartbreak, or at the very least an intrafamilial rupture.
The album’s more train-hopping second half is less newsworthy, less melancholy, and yet more protracted, evincing the idea this is a beautiful, serene and mature album, but one of a twilight zone. The hour for this type of music is, arguably, almost up. Misspell this album’s title and you have it down—this is the mourning phase for a dying art. Now, our songwriters must be itchy and socially aware and on the edge of chaos—rather like Beck used to be on his more schizoid albums, like Mellow Gold, Odelay and Midnite Vultures.
Enter Annie Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent, who fits this bill, and whose major-label debut is self-consciously named after her nom de plume.
Clark’s previous album, Strange Mercy, was a champagne year’s effort and will prove hard to top. Thematically disconsolate but musically utterly cohesive; a gooey riot of squealing synths, searing guitars and deceptively bleacher-aiming drums; this was a work that took in references to Rohmer and Monroe, kiddy-fiddling and bond-trading.
Clark is fond of substituting the minute for the whole—a very American synecdoche—and on this latest album she deals in repetitive minutiae which stand in for a gaping maw of an epoch. On “Digital Witness” she pokes fun at our oversharing, our wilful self-exposure on social media, and the song duly takes the form of a busy, parping conversation on Twitter. Talking Heads mined the equivalent concerns thirty years ago with much the same aesthetic. “Birth In Reverse” has a pummelling disco beat and an apiary of buzzing, jittery, restless guitars that fill every crevice; Clark’s stream of observations, mundane and trivial, resembles a particularly dreary Instagram feed.
In “Prince Johnny”, people who assumed they were royalty (and partied and self-destructed as such) suddenly question their place in society. “By now I know just when to stand clear / When all your friends and acolytes / holding court in bathroom stalls / Where you pray to all / to make you a real boy” is a decisive sequence of lyrics, Clark eliding the reverential and the base in a vaguely Queen Bey style.
Direct comparisons between St. Vincent and Beck are reductive—they mine different inspirations and their art-forms have never collided. But they are both emblematic of their eras, and what we expect from each age’s songwriters. Hansen blossomed out of an innocent Greenspan-tinged decade where samples and rudimentally-struck guitars could be combined and celebrated, while America was screwing over vast tracts of Asia. But in the background he was busy taking notes from the classics, which now he retraces, to gently decreasing returns. Clark, meanwhile, extends our hashtagging, FOMO nature to its logical extreme. Even when she’s heart-on-sleeve, as on “I Prefer Your Love” and “Severed Crossed Fingers”, it is from a position of at-once startling frankness and icy detachment, so reflective of her age. Hers is a warning of more transparent, tell-all unpleasantness to come.