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Album Review

Is life about loss or love? Isolating failures or second chances? Exile or reunion? Conflict or reconciliation? For acoustic troubadour Beck Hansen—better known as just Beck—the answer to all these questions on his Grammy-winning Album of the Year is … yes.

Over the course of 13 dreamily hypnotic songs—often sounding like a time-warped blend of Pink Floyd, CSNY and Simon & Garfunkel—Morning Phase delivers poetic, spare and philosophical meditations on the relationship between perseverance and pain. And it's a tension he seems more than content just to acknowledge rather than resolve.

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That tug-and-pull is apparent from the outset, with "Morning" finding hope amid a storm ("Woke up this morning, found a love light in the storm") while acknowledging prickly pain amid life's beauty ("Looked up this morning, saw roses full of thorns"). As the song progresses, it morphs into a plea for another chance to make things right with someone ("Could we start it all over again, this morning?/ ... Won't you show me the way it used to be?").

Sounding like Jason Mraz's melancholy brother on "Don't Let It Go," Beck admonishes, "You better save yourself/From something you can't see/ ... You don't have to let it go away/ ... Don't let them turn your mind inside out." He admits he doesn't know how someone's difficult story will end ("In the crossfire, there's a story/And how it ends, I do not know") but encourages nonetheless, "Don't let it go."

"Heart Is a Drum" opaquely suggests that those trying to please everyone end up worn out ("Your heart is a drum/Keeping time with everyone/High as the light of day/You're falling down across your lost highway"). Beck again flirts with despair ("Pain, does it hurt this way?/To come so far to find they've closed the gates") before shifting to a stance of healthy relinquishment ("Need to find someone to show me how to play it slow/And just let it go").

"Blue Moon" is indeed blue (emotionally speaking) as Beck laments, "I'm so tired of being alone," and compares life to a prison where he's doing penance ("These penitent walls are all I've known") from which he pleads (or prays?) for companionship ("Oh, don't leave me on my own") even as he denounces "lies that will divide us both in time."

"Blackbird Chain" seems to characterize a bond of loyalty in terms of being chained together ("I'll never, never, never, never, never, never refuse you/My blackbird chain, my blackbird chain"). Similarly dense imagery on "Turn Away" counsels rejecting elements of our past that might prove self-destructive now ("Turn, turn away/From the weight of your own past/It's magic for the devil/And betray the lack of change/Once you have spoken/Turn away"). "Country Down" begins with straightforward praise for the beauty of a rolling country landscape, then morphs into a complex meditation about intertwined themes of freedom, beauty, death, isolation and redemption.

Album closer "Waking Light" concludes on a characteristically melancholy yet strangely hopeful note: "When the memory leaves you/Somewhere you can't make it home/When the morning comes to meet you/Open your eyes with waking light."

Objectionable Content

There's little that's obviously objectionable on Morning Phase. But sometimes Beck's sentiments drift listlessly toward despair without, maybe, quite enough counterbalancing influence. "Heart Is a Drum," for instance, concludes, "Beat, beat, beat, beat, it's beating me down/Day after day, it's turning around/'Til all my days are drowning out." "Say Goodbye" moodily plumbs the depths of the emotional vacuum left when a romantic relationship ends by telling us, "Bones crack, curtains drawn/on my back and she is gone/Somewhere else, I do not know."

Summary Advisory

Determination. Despair. At any given moment, you're not always sure which one is in the ascendant on the ephemeral Morning Phase. To show you what I mean, I'll point to "Turn Away," where Beck instructs, "Hold, hold the light/That fixes you in time/Keeps you under/Takes you over/The wall of love that divides, between waking and slumber/Turn away."

Lines like those defy easy categorization while intelligently hinting at the vexing perplexities and swirling ambiguities of life and love. Beck acknowledges failure, brokenness and isolation on nearly every track. And yet, quite often he paradoxically juxtaposes that acknowledgment against a quiet hope. Though Beck (who reportedly subscribes to Scientology) never directly refers to God, more than once his plaintive pleas have a prayer-like feel to them.

What we're left with, then, is not so much meaning as mood. A mood that is a realistically ambivalent with Beck loosely holding the disappointments of life in one hand and the conviction that good things still await at the morning dawn in the other.

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Debuted at No. 3.

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February 25, 2014

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Adam R. Holz

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