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 Lee Adcock

Beck – Morning Phase (Fonograf/Capitol)

Beck – Morning Phase (Fonograf/Capitol)
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Damn it, Beck.

It’s not that I – or anyone else at Collapse Board, for that matter – hate successful white guys with guitars. We’re just hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t bore us to tears or drive us nuts with their banal male sexuality.

Nor is it true that there’s no place for sentimental singer-songwriters in today’s post-postmodern world. It’s just that, if you’re gonna center your album on such a basic poetic motif as the morning and Neil Young-like songcraft, maybe you could try to draw a setting, a place, and/or real people in your lyrics, instead of falling back on tired old clichés and hiding your mundane writing in aerie mega-lush production?

I mean, come on now. Yes, my heart is a drum. That’s quite astute of you. It keeps time with everyone? WOW, YOU MEAN MY HEART BEATS AT THE EXACT SAME PACE AS EVERYONE ELSE’S? NO SHIT!! …okay, we’re being infantile here, but Beck passes this off like one of those intimate Nick Drake moments, as if this were a profound romantic philosophy. Dead serious. No playful irony.

And then there’s this, from “Unforgiven: “Drive to the night / far as it goes / away from the daylight / into the afterglow / somewhere unforgiven. / time will wait for you.” Well, what the fuck does that even mean? See, it’s that Profound Universalism again – the proper term, I suppose, is Romanticism with a capital R, the early 1800s type – that, in its ultra-wide scope, blurs out the nitty-gritty details of the everyday life of you and I. Thomas Cole’s infamous “The Oxbow” sums the whole of the album well (and notice! no peoples!):

theoxbow

Granted, “Wave” is very Romantic in a classical music sense, focusing less on technical skill and more on dynamics, on the subtle terracing and sculpting of volume and the sheer expression of a violin’s bow – and that’s actually quite impressive. No wonder he chose “Wave” for one of his SNL performances – look how Artistic and Authentic he appears before a full string orchestra:

But. Still. What’s up, doc? Why so serious and studied? Don’t tell me it’s because – no! – you’re older?! Does this mean you had to compromise the flavor and texture and mischief of Mellow Gold or Odelay, the boozy feel and character, the curious tinkering with genre and style of Variations? Why, in short, did ya think it was such a brilliant idea to regress back to Sea Change? Because that is, more or less, what Morning Phase is. Look, the covers are even similar – there’s Beck’s mug, there’s the artsy rainbow smear across his face. Except this time, the hat and the lighting suggest a friggin’ halo, an album of pure goodness and light. Making the former trickster a bloody saint, like all the other singer-songwriter saints: Young, James Taylor, Nick Drake, and even Simon and Garfunkel on “Turn Away”.

But you know what, dude? You think you’ve written a folk song, but guess what? You forgot somethin’: where are the folks?

See, this song captures much of the stuff that Beck lacks – a scene. A person. A window into someone else’s life. An isolation penned so precisely that we can feel the little joys and aches. And conflict – “half of the time you’re gone, and I don’t know where, I don’t know where”.

Here’s a more contemporary example of a folk song for folk:

“A knife, a knife, a knife makes you feel strong / with a gun you can’t be wrong / everybody try to stay calm / I think the safety’s on”

How can one gauge all the emotions that Dan Wilson evokes here? The insecurities, the elation, the agony? Plus, a universal truth that’s as plain as day – “a hard-on, a hard-on, a hard-on / doesn’t mean that you’re in love”. And don’t tell me that we chicks can never relate – I mean, no, I don’t have a dick, but lawd yes have I crashed into that wall between attraction and interaction.* This is something else that Beck has forgotten entirely (call it rainbow amnesia): the fringe, the discomfort, the anxiety.

Without these knots, Morning Phase is just a dream world, one that resonates only as a dream would: resplendent, perhaps, but once we wake up, the content fades into vague snapshots. We can forgive millions of twenty-somethings for such fleeting songcraft, but…damn it, Beck. How’d ya get so fucking soft?

* – Back in high school, I hankered for a kid one year younger than me that played percussion in the school band. And being the crushingly shy slip of a thing that I was, I could only muster up enough gumption to leave covert presents for him on his desk during first period, especially slices of home-baked cake. Later that year, when I related my plot to a psychology teacher, he told me that girls express sexual desire by sharing baking goods. Of course we never hit it off. Perhaps that’s for the best, though.

13 Responses to Beck – Morning Phase (Fonograf/Capitol)

  1. Chrissy March 19, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    “drive us nuts with their banal male sexuality.”

    Why do you consider male sexuality to be inherently banal?

  2. Everett True March 19, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Oh man. You had to ask. Have a read of this.

    ‘Blurred Lines’ and the Banality of Male Sexuality

  3. Chrissy March 19, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    That article is chastising certain male artists for their harmful views on women. My question still stands. What makes male sexuality inherently “banal” but female sexuality not? Isn’t that reinforcing centuries old gender norms?

  4. Chrissy March 19, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    This seems like benevolent sexism to me. By labeling male sexuality as “banal”, you are tacitly suggesting that female sexuality is somehow “pure” (a misogynist lie that the Church has been peddling for ages).

  5. Wallace Wylie March 21, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Well, the full quote was “It’s not that I – or anyone else at Collapse Board, for that matter – hate successful white guys with guitars. We’re just hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t bore us to tears or drive us nuts with their banal male sexuality.” so it was a comment on the sexuality of successful white guys with guitars. Banal means boring or lacking in individuality. I’m not sure why anyone would think pure was implied as an opposite or alternative to banal.

  6. Chrissy March 21, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Wallace,

    I know what banal means. By “pure” I meant desirable or interesting. Bad choice of words, though, I agree. Still, the tacit assumption of LeeA’s statement is that female sexuality is somehow inherently superior to male sexuality. That sounds an awful lot like benevolent sexism to me. It paints women with a broad brush and assumes that we cannot be banal. I can name a plethora of contemporary female artists who flaunt their boring, faceless sexuality. Care to guess who they are?

  7. Chrissy March 21, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    This is my sole beef with latter-day feminism. It spends an inordinate amount of time glamorizing the feminine and in the process, denies us our faults and our blemishes (you know, the full spectrum of qualities that make us human). I can be banal, pedantic, and/or insufferable, dammit! : )

  8. Chester Whelks March 22, 2014 at 1:34 am

    “…when I related my plot to a psychology teacher, he told me that girls express sexual desire by sharing baking goods. Of course we never hit it off. Perhaps that’s for the best, though.”

    Yeah, his sexuality was probably, by definition of his gender, completely vapid.

  9. Wallace Wylie March 23, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Here’s that full quote again: “It’s not that I – or anyone else at Collapse Board, for that matter – hate successful white guys with guitars. We’re just hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t bore us to tears or drive us nuts with their banal male sexuality.” Can anyone spot definitive statements about the sexuality of all males right there? I can’t.

  10. LeeA March 24, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Wow! I hadn’t checked this spot for ages and a bloom of comments sprouted. Hey, Chrissy – of course I’m boring! On most days, I’m the dullest human being on earth! And you should see my FACE – I have a long history of pesky zits that still persists into my so-called adulthood. Arghhh.

    But the reason I said that – well, yes, it was directly referencing Wylie’s article (which is still ACE). It also highlights the fact that 98% of the blokes in the limelight capitalize on the same ol’ schtick – boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy has sex with girl. The more sensitive singer/songwriter type, which Beck (remember Beck?) is posing to be, blurs out the physical sex part and mopes around in the relation part, but it’s really just a slice of the same damn story.

    And no, I wasn’t positing female sexuality as “pure”. You lost me there. Pure is not the opposite of boring! In fact, those sound like synonyms to me – because sex is dirty and smelly and violent, and thus “pure” sexuality would deny the very physical nature of sex.

    But anyway – enough about sex! What’d ya think about the music?

  11. Jordan April 5, 2014 at 12:16 am

    Hi there, I don’t mean to be combative with this. The discussion seemed interesting so I’d like to take part.

    I feel like not only now, but even going back to the peak of chauvinist rock’n’roll there has been plenty of deep/nuanced sexual commentary by “successful white men.” Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen, John Fogerty, Donald Fagan, Roger Waters, John Lennon, even at times the king chauvinist Jim Morrison had really interesting things to say that fell way outside the realm of ‘banal male sexuality’, although to be sure a lot of them had ‘pig jams’ as well. Nowadays for complex explorations of male sexuality you have Wild Beasts, Liars, Deerhunter, to me the list goes on and on so I’ll just stop.

    The problem? That male sexuality, thanks to males, is perceived as two-dimensional and goal oriented, because of how dudes go about their joking and posturing. In reality, I believe that this is a shell encasing what is really a pretty interconnected sexual identity.

    I am concerned that because of the candy shell, male sexual expression that doesn’t fall within the ‘meet/woo/sex’ storyline is deemed by critics to be either 1)feminine sexuality expressed by a male or 2)not perceived as sexual at all.

    Now, what’s troubling about the ‘meet/woo/sex’ definition of banal male sexuality itself is that it could be used to imply that male sexuality, if it is to avoid being banal, cannot include a discussion of sex, which is ludicrous. I would like to know what kind of male sexual expression would pass your banality test and still be considered male. If no male sexuality could, then your problem is in your test.

    Again, I think that dudes as a group are responsible for how they are perceived, but the statement that successful white men with guitars are all one-trick ponies is lazy, and I think your definitions need work to be useful beyond ‘how many angels dance on the head of a pin?’ party discussion. That said, Beck sucks.

  12. LeeA April 7, 2014 at 11:45 am

    (I love how everyone’s reading the first line of my review and ignoring the other 9/10s of it. I really put some thought into that Romanticism comparison, y’know…)

    Jordan, the line is, “We’re just hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t bore us to tears OR drive us nuts with their banal male sexuality.” I’m not saying that all straight white dudes ever are dull (see the examples in this article) – just that present examples are hard to come by.

    And did you not see what I wrote about Withered Hand lately?

  13. Jordan April 17, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Hi Lee, no I did not take the time to read all the articles you ever wrote before responding to this one. I was responding, not to the one partial sentence in the review, but to the discussion in the comments, which i found interesting, including what you said here:

    “…the fact that 98% of the blokes in the limelight capitalize on the same ol’ schtick – boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy has sex with girl. The more sensitive singer/songwriter type, which Beck (remember Beck?) is posing to be, blurs out the physical sex part and mopes around in the relation part, but it’s really just a slice of the same damn story.”

    That was really what my post was addressing.

    In light of the fact that the review led to a discussion on a topic, and that to clarify I opened my post to say: “Hi there, I don’t mean to be combative with this. The discussion seemed interesting so I’d like to take part.” …for you to imply I’m cherry picking from the review itself, well I’m not sure if that argument holds water.

    I wouldn’t take what certainly could be people misinterpreting your online comments too hard. It’s better to write a conversation-starting piece than a boring one, no?

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