Some time ago, the curious dude Beck was asked about his absurdist lyrics. Where in the world does something like the surreal rap of Corvette Bummer come from? The slacker-trickster explained that he would sit in a chair with a helmet on and take down the words before his hands combusted. Many of the lines are bonkers: "Milk the kids, Polaroid cupcake / Take it to the limit, new wave biscuit." But the helmet doesn't lie, and neither does the muse.
So you take it as it comes, not questioning it. One man's new wave biscuit is another man's answer blowing in the wind; one man's coo-coo ca-choo is another's man's hallelujah. Songwriters, like poets, speak the language of their dreams.
Beck, the mutating songster now aged 43, isn't the lyrical weirdo he used to be. On his sublime new album Morning Phase, he dreamily murmurs about not wanting to be alone or not fighting the waves that would carry him away. The album can be seen as a companion piece to Sea Change, his melancholic classic from 2002 that was recorded with help from most of the same musicians who played on the new record.
He had planned Morning Phase to be a traditional country album, but it didn't work out that way. Putting on the helmet and strapping into the chair, the sound came to him, all mellow and string-laden. And just like that, sad Beck was back, whether he wanted it that way or not.
"It was not my intention to try and recapture anything," Beck says from Los Angeles. "It's just a group of musicians doing what they do and not worrying about it." The players on Morning Phase included guitarist Smokey Hormel, bass player Justin Meldal-Johnsen, multi-instrumentalist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., drummer Joey Waronker and, arranging the strings, David Campbell, who happens to be Beck's father. They were all involved on Sea Change, but hadn't worked together in more than a decade.
"What you hear is not just a part of the two records, it's a part of us," Beck explains, speaking last week while driving to the studio. "And I felt like if I was either trying to avoid Sea Change or recreate it, it just wouldn't work."
If Morning Phase was unavoidable, it wasn't easy. Recording his previous studio album, 2008's fashionable Danger-Mouse-produced Modern Guilt, was complicated by a serious, mysterious back injury that persisted for years and made even holding a guitar painful.
Asked about the malady, the now healthier Beck is hesitant to go into details. "It was my own thing that I had to deal with," he says, mentioning extensive physical therapy, perseverance and patience. "There's something that bothers me about a musician complaining about what they're going through physically. I feel it takes away from the music."
In between Modern Guilt and Morning Phase, he kept busy. He produced Charlotte Gainsbourg's groovy IRM and started up the Record Club project, which involved corralling fellow adventurers such as St. Vincent and Wilco to cover a full album by another artist in just one day.
In 2012, Beck released Song Reader, an old-fashioned sheet-music book of new songs.
Beck went into a studio in Nashville three years ago to record an album, but shelved the tapes. "It was going to be an album with fiddles and pedal steel," he explains, "but ultimately I just felt like it would be taken as a kind of genre exercise." Later he returned to Nashville with the Sea Change players, and eventually finished the album in Los Angeles.
Although Sea Change is a breakup record, Morning Phase, while down-tempo and introspective, is not something breaking apart. On the serene downer Blue Moon, Beck (by all reports happily married with actress Marissa Ribisi, the mother of their two children) sings that he is tired of being alone.
"The song is not directed at anybody," Beck insists. But you can identify with it, right? "Absolutely," he answers. And you have gone through periods of emotional isolation? "Of course," Beck says quickly. "I still do."
As for the general forlorn feel of the record, Beck shrugs it off as an artistic decision, which is to say it was not any decision at all. "No matter how hard you try to force your head creatively, you're going to make what you're going to make," he explains. "Sometimes you don't necessarily have a choice."