Listen to this track by singer-songwriter and artistic moving target Beck. It’s “Blackbird Chain”, a deep-cut as taken from this year’s full-length record Morning Phase. The album is the result of a long gestation period for Beck, following up 2008’s Modern Guilt. That’s quite a stretch of time for an artist as prolific as he’s been, and one who’s since traded record labels since that earlier release.
And as usual, the results are a far cry from that earlier release too, trading tight-cornered arrangements, beats, loops, and synths for real strings, acoustic guitars, and expansive production. The centre of that production shifted as well, from Los Angeles and Danger Mouse at the controls, for recording in Nashville no less, taking the production chair himself. So what has he done on this record, with “Blackbird Chain” being a worthy representation of a cohesive whole within an established body of work?
Well, first off this wouldn’t be the first time Beck had switched gears in terms of musical approach. He’d done the same between 1996’s hip-hop flavoured cut and paste album Odelay, to 1998’s neo-psychedelic Mutations, and onto 1999’s electro-funk flavoured Midnite Vultures, and then topping it off with a confessional singer-songwriter album in 2002’s Sea Change. Since that initial run of career-defining records, Beck has put some distance behind his initial loser-slacker-ironicist image.
Connected to that, he’s matured as an artist with less distance between himself and his material. A part of this may have to do with an enforced hiatus from recording and touring, due to a persistent injury that challenged him physically. This allowed him to concentrate on other areas, particularly in producing other artists; Stephen Malkmus, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Thurston Moore were all recipients of Beck’s skills in the production chair. And now with that experience, he’s produced this new record himself.
Shades of Neil Young and Radiohead seem to be threads woven into the sound you’re hearing here. And yet with “Blackbird Chain”, he’s managed to create something that is a classic Beck track that belongs solely to him, even if that term is hard to pin down given his predilection for wide spectrums of musical texture and form. Acoustic guitar, warm bass, mallet percussion, strings, pedal steel, shifting time signatures, and echoey production behind up-front lead vocals all play a part in making a dreamlike effect in what feels like a love song that could have been written at any point during a Gen-X lifetime.
He’s also managed to connect emotionally, with an atmosphere heavy with melancholy and wistfulness, yet balanced with a certain warmth too. Maybe his narrowly averted retirement plays into that, with a certain measure of gratitude at being able to deliver it intertwined into its fabric. The whole “return to form” kind of language around a record that’s taken six years is usually just a cliche. In this case, it’s pretty apt when you consider what it took to deliver it. And what’s more – it just fits.
With all of his earlier records and respective styles in place, “Blackbird Chain” and Morning Phase as a whole is something that establishes Beck as an artist who has a special place in a disappearing pantheon of artists that put out records that count as documents of where they were at when they created them, but also that stand as being steps in a cohesive journey that a listener can follow. This is another musical statement from Beck that connects with his whole body of work, even if that which preceded it explores other avenues. All of this makes me think that Beck is among those artists that are never to be replaced, with none coming up behind him to fill the artistic space he’s carved out.
I don’t know whether to feel grateful or depressed about that. Until I figure it out, I have Morning Phase, and this song as its centerpiece as assurance that an important voice of my generation is still exploring his musical imagination. Otherwise, I’m just glad that this man is making music after a time when it was possible that he might not.
For more information, check out Beck.com.