When an artist struts the music domain with a single moniker a la Prince, Sting or Madonna, and that name happens to coincide with the surname of legendary rock and blues guitarist Jeff Beck, they’d better be good. Check that — they’d better be great.
Beck Hansen, the alternative-indie artist known as Beck, released “Morning Phase,” his 12th studio album, on Feb. 25. The work contains 13 original songs that were mixed down especially for iTunes’ m4a version of audio compression. His previous studio album, “Modern Guilt,” was released in 2008.
Simply stated, “there’s a lot going on here,” and Beck has written and produced a multilayered concept album that took several months to arrange, record and mix down. Many of the song titles and lyrics reference the album name as well as the early hours of the day on planet Earth.
The recording is impeccably clean with each nuance of sound plainly evident. According to a December 2013 article in Rolling Stone magazine, Beck’s father, composer-arranger David Campbell, followed suit with Beck’s earlier works by arranging the symphonic orchestrations.
The album has received an average of four-star consumer ratings on iTunes.
There are no filler tracks on “Morning Phase.” Notwithstanding, this is slow mood music with several songs capturing melancholy and haunting expressions versus the kick-in-the-pants road tunes people play to get their blood pumping.
Longstanding Beck fans will notice some familiar sidemen among the credits: guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and drummer Joey Waronker.
Those same fans will see a reprise of traditional folk music packaged on some of his earlier albums: “Alcohol” from his debut “Loser - EP” (January 1994) or “Sunday Sun” and “The Golden Age” from “Sea Change” (September 2002).
Furthermore, there is no scornful anti-folk content such as “Pay No Mind” from “Mellow Gold” (March 1994) or postmodern bits and pieces of funk, rap or hip-hop inserted here and there.
After a short pipe organ intro called “Cycle,” the dark feel of the album is established on “Morning.” This medium-slow folk-rock vehicle features full-sounding acoustic guitar chords, simple bass and drum parts, pretty melodies with long notes, wonderful harmonies and a powerful bridge.
Beck is a complex artist with many apparent influences, so comparisons seem inevitable.
“Heart Is a Drum” is stylistically a Beck original all the way, but the powerful vocal harmonies and synthesized strings (possibly from a Mellotron) could easily have been airlifted from an album of the Moody Blues circa 1970.
Next up is “Say Goodbye,” a simple half-time folk-rock piece reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Old Man” from his “Harvest” album (February 1972).
It features a banjo, just like the Young recording. The tone of both songs is somber, but the Beck composition has added musical sophistication and even darker lyrics: “Bones crack, curtains drawn / On my back and she is gone / Somewhere else I do not know / Time will tell and I will go / These are the words we use to say goodbye.”
After “Blue Moon,” a track featuring tom toms and vocals sounding like the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album, and “Unforgiven,” a prodding half-time rock song, Beck morphs the vibe into a haunting space with vocals reminiscent of Queen’s Freddie Mercury on the title track of “Innuendo.”
Next, the high harmonies on the noir folk ballad “Don’t Let It Go” may raise the hairs on one’s neck before Beck adds even more harmonies to create counterpoint and texture toward the end.
Other highlights include “Blackbird Chain,” a track with the fastest tempo on the album and a catchy chorus, and “Country Down” with its powerful melody and Bob Dylan-esque lyrics that bleed raw emotion:
“Down river bound / Where the limit to your sky fell down / The plot against your will / Is furrowed into your brow / Against your better judgment / It’s all behind you now / Just a mile outside of town.”
“Waking Light” concludes the album with its solemn Pink Floyd-like lead vocals, Beach Boys retro harmonies, piano, synthesized strings and a guitar solo with phase shifter over the out section.
“Morning Phase” is a convincing concept album that instills a sense of mature folk purity among its scattered guitar chords, melancholy vocals and multiple layers of instrumentation.
The work resembles his earlier album “Sea Change” in that both are mellow folk expressions with wonderful vocals and harmonies, but “Morning Phase” demonstrates that Beck has grown as an artist over the 11-plus years since “Sea Change” was released.
It also shows that he is a deep musical thinker: Beck leaves nothing to chance, and meaningless content wasn’t placed on the album because there was nothing else to place on the album.
“Morning Phase” will leave listeners wondering: “what will Beck think of next?”