Dying Breed

02.21.14

The Last Great Singer-Songwriter Album

Beck's new album, Morning Phase, is his best since the 1990s. But can it resurrect a dying genre?

Read the reviews of Beck's new album, Morning Phase, and you'll start to notice a pattern. Typically, the critic will ease into his essay by mentioning that Morning Phase, out Feb. 25, is Beck's first proper LP since 2008—an unusually long hiatus for such a prolific artist. He will explain the lull by noting that Beck suffered from back problems, which made creative work difficult, which in turn forced him to focus on lesser pursuits: a series of cover albums, a "record" released solely as sheet music.

The critic will continue by noting that work on Morning Phase began in Nashville in 2005, but that the songs didn't really click until Beck reunited with his band in 2012. He will expound upon the many sides of Beck—the post-modern hip-hop collage artist Beck; the funky ironist Beck; the mellow California songsmith Beck—and ask, rhetorically, which Beck made Morning Phase. He will answer his own question: the last one. He will compare Morning Phase to Beck's 2002 breakup record, Sea Change, because the two discs sound somewhat alike—acoustic guitars, slower tempos, string arrangements—and also because Beck has called them companion pieces. The critic will announce which album is better and why. And that's about it.

What the reviews don't mention is that Morning Phase could be something more than the latest Beck LP. It could also be the Last Big Singer-Songwriter Album.

These days the charts are full of pop singers who spill their guts and pop songs that tell us what they're supposed to signify. It can get old.

Once upon a time, singer-songwriters bestrode the charts. Now they're nearly extinct. When I say "singer-songwriter," I'm referring to a specific type: a solo artist who breaks down the barriers that used to come between musician and audience—a collective band identity; a professional songwriting team; a controlling Svengali—and establishes a deeper connection with listeners by composing and performing their own material.

As recently as 2002, when Beck released Sea Change, singer-songwriters were a thriving species; Ryan Adams, Norah Jones, Iron & Wine, David Grey, Sufjan Stevens, Ray LaMontagne, and Conor Oberst all hit their commercial stride in the Aughties. The Nineties generated Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, Duncan Sheik, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, and Beck himself, and the further back you go—from Prince to Billy Joel to Randy Newman to Joni Mitchell to James Taylor to Carole King—the more dominant the breed becomes.

But in recent years, something seems to have changed. As far as I can tell, only one traditional singer-songwriter—Bon Iver—has managed to find mainstream success since Beck's Modern Guilt came out in 2008. Otherwise, the field is pretty fallow.

What happened? For the past week, I've toggled between Morning Phase and Top 40 radio, trying to answer that question. The conclusion I've come to isn't comprehensive, but in its own sketchy way, I think it says a lot about the current state of popular music. It also explains why Beck's latest LP strikes me as such a standout.

Before the Beatles and Bob Dylan, most pop acts sang material that other people wrote, produced, and performed. This became déclassé after 1964 or so, and the singer-songwriters of the 1970s made it downright sinful. By the early 2000s, however, the pendulum was starting to swing back toward the old assembly-line model—with one big difference. The star producers (Timbaland, Shellback) and pro songwriters (The-Dream, Ester Dean) were back, but now the artists themselves (Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Adele) were expected to contribute a snippet of melody or a verse of lyrics. The result was a more "personal," collaborative form of Top 40 music—a new brand of pop that taps into the singer-songwriter spirit and caters to the audience's fondness for confession and connection, only with better voices and bigger hooks. Think "Roar" or "Mirror,", or "I Knew You Were Trouble." Old-school singer-songwriters couldn't really compete on the charts, and that's a big part of why they've been sidelined since 2008.

Which brings us to Morning Phase. Its so-called predecessor Sea Change got great reviews back in 2002, but it never really hooked me. Beck had split with his beau of nine years, Leigh Limon, and written the entire LP in a single week; it was supposed to be all about heartbreak. But Beck's marshmallow voice has never been particularly expressive—emotions cannot penetrate its fluffy white cocoon—and his lyrics, while simple and sincere, weren't specific enough to sound personal. The result was a lovely record that nonetheless felt like it had been created by an automaton that had programmed itself to be sad. 

Morning Phase is different. Sure, the panoramic, twilit sound is similar: the fluttering Bryter Layter piano of "Heart Is a Drum"; the ascending "All Things Must Pass" progression of "Mornings"; the airy "Moonlight Mile" mood of "Blue Moon"; and the plaintive, psychedelic beauty of "Waking Light." But the harmonies are richer, the chord changes are less clichéd, and, most importantly, the lyrics aren't trying so hard to capture a feeling that Beck isn't quite equipped to capture. They're holding back. They aren't confessing everything. When Beck addresses heartache on Morning Phase—"These are the words we use to say goodbye"—he positions himself as a detached observer rather than an active participant. This reticence—this reserve—suits Beck's voice and personality much better than the confessional self-consciousness of Sea Change.  As a result, Morning Phase feels more natural than anything else he's ever written. 

Some critics have complained about this shift. "Peering inside [these] sleek, circular contours reveals a whole lot of nothing," Steven Hyden recently wrote on Grantland. "What are these songs supposed to signify? Sea Change was tied tangibly to romantic loss; Morning Phase was made by a contented suburban husband and father." 

But ultimately the relative remoteness of Morning Phase is what makes it such a rewarding record—the kind you can return to again and again. These days the charts are full of pop singers who spill their guts and pop songs that tell us what they're supposed to signify. It can get old. With Sea Change, Beck created a singer-songwriter album that struck the same pose; it was exactly the kind of singer-songwriter album we'd come to expect. But Morning Phase is a more mysterious proposition: a singer-songwriter album that's far less confessional than most contemporary pop. Which is exactly the kind of singer-songwriter album we need right now. Even if it is the last.