His new album, Morning Phase, is released this week but for the last month it has been universally praised, attracting five-star reviews from the likes of Mojo, Q and Rolling Stone. “It’s really encouraging,” says Beck of the warm welcome his new LP has received. “Believe me, I appreciate it. Otherwise you’re just making records for yourself. You wouldn’t have to release anything, you could just sit at home and make music and listen to it yourself. That’s not what you want.
“I want to work on something and have what you were trying to do understood in some way. There’s plenty of times when I’ve tried to do something and it missed the mark; where you don’t really hit what you’re trying to do. When it does work out, believe me, it’s very good indeed.”
In this instance the genre-defying singer/songwriter isn’t actually referring to unreleased misfires, but light of day stuff. “Sometimes with a record like Midnight Vultures (1998), maybe it’s not the correct thing to do,” he explains. “Or it comes out at the wrong time and it’s not really where people were at and it’s not quite understood. So with this record I just kept working on it, ‘til it was complete. So you could hear it and go, ‘Okay I get this’.”
A broad, universal nature was installed into the songs written for Song Reader, encouraging a wide variety of people to play the songs themselves at home. The project, however, didn’t itself influence Morning Phase.
“No,” says Beck. “Some of the songs were written before I finished that book. It’s a different kind of project because when I was writing the songs for the book I was thinking about everyone from a 12-year-old girl to a 75-year-old man. Somebody in Hong Kong and somebody in Sweden; the kind of songs that anybody could pick up and play. These were quite different in terms of resonating a kind of feeling; you’re trying to manifest a certain mood into the songs. This was very specific to my ways and what works with my voice.”
With the five-star reviews has come the usual labelling. Mojo magazine described Morning Phase as ‘Beck’s ’70s album’. He’s unmoved. “I think it’s all in the way you couch something. It’s maybe an older record by default because when you remove all the modern tropes and production techniques from any record right now it’s going to sound older. I removed things not out of a sense of nostalgia, but as an attempt to simplify. As far as the songs sounding ‘70s, the alternative is for it to sound like a modern, middle-of-the-road singer/songwriter record.
“I feel that earlier time had a vitality and a ruggedness. It was a kind of personal songwriting that I was trying to reach, but I very much wanted the album to have a modern sensibility in the way the recording sounds. I think that’s an easy thing to say; that anything with acoustic guitars and pianos is ‘70s, it’s like saying anything written with a pen is pre-typewriter (laughs). There’s no record exactly like this from the ‘70s, and if you played it next to a record from the ‘70s it doesn’t sound like one.
“I’ve actually done that; I’ll take my songs and play them next to a James Taylor or John Martin song… it doesn’t sound anything like it. On purpose! I could have easily made it sound like an old record. Taken out all the low end, it would have been a lot less hi-fi and airy sounding.”
As it goes, some of the songs date back four or five years, with Beck revisiting them like old friends. “Well the song, Wave, was recorded in 2009. My dad was working on a bunch of orchestral things and then I tried to give it to Charlotte Gainsbourg. You know, it’s been sitting around for years. “Something like Country Down I recorded in Nashville, then I re-recorded it in Los Angeles. Say Goodbye, I think I’d written that song years ago and I found the lyrics but I couldn’t remember the music. I went in the studio and just kind of improvised with the session musicians we had and it just kind of came out in one take.
“Others were much more laboured. I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting and editing to try and find what the song was.” How closely do your completed songs come to the original sound or notion you have in your head when writing, or is that not important in the grander scheme of things?
“I think in my head it’s always a bit more raw. A little tougher sounding, more ragged. As I work on it, it becomes a little sweeter, or something. I don’t know… Sea Change (2002) was meant to sound a lot more ragged and rough and loose. And it ended up being more of a piece of work. More crafted. Which I’m glad of, in the end. I like that.”
With another album set for potential release this year, Beck refuses to play too much of a tug-of-war with his own music. He’s happy to be guided by it. “You only have so much control,” he notes. “I’m just trying to, most of the time, keep it away from being something that’s just typical or middle-of-the-road. You can always walk in to a place and hear a record playing that sounds like 100 other records out there. I’m always looking for that quality that sets it off a little bit. A combination of something that sounds old and something from the future and something that just has an otherness to it.
“I think that’s why I keep making records. It’s why any of us are still doing it, because we’re still trying to get it right.”
BY BOB GORDON