Published Mar 12, 2014"I'm just trying to make songs," Beck reflects during a phone conversation from his Los Angeles home.
He says this when discussing his hesitation to explain the meaning behind his lyrics, and the comment reflects a surprisingly humble outlook for someone who, in the six years since his 2008 LP, Modern Guilt, has done a whole lot more than just make songs.
In that time, Beck's list of projects has been dizzying: he's released a 30-minute single, recorded covers collections with a rotating cast of high-profile collaborators, composed music for films and videogames, produced for other artists (including Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus and Charlotte Gainsbourg), guested on songs by Childish Gambino and the Lonely Island, and released a collection of unrecorded material on sheet music.
Along the way, he's even made some albums, although these haven't seen the light of day. "I've been making records for years," he says. "It's what I do. I had intended to make other records in that time, and I have, I just was trying to figure out the right thing to put out." Last year's trio of summer singles — "Defriended," "I Won't Be Long" and "Gimme" — came from one of these shelved LPs.
Eventually, Beck found the direction he was looking for when he reconvened with some long-time collaborators for a live show in 2012. The line-up was the same one that appeared on his celebrated 2002 album Sea Change, and their reunion led the songwriter to revisit that collection's folksy, melancholic sound.
"I wanted to go to a place that's familiar and have a sense of recognition," he reflects, speaking carefully and with lengthy pauses. "A place where you can try to make something a bit more personal. That's just the way we hear music — if there's a lot of synthesizers and drum machines, it tends to give the impression of being colder. I wanted the record to have a lot of warmth."
Beck achieved this goal on the newly released Morning Phase, which harkens back to Sea Change's lush orchestrations and downtempo acoustic balladry. This similarity is particularly apparent in the peaceful acoustic strums and softly tinkling keys of "Morning," which is a dead ringer for the earlier album's "The Golden Age." His father David Campbell once again contributed string arrangements, and these are spine-tingling on "Wave," as Beck croons solemnly over rich symphonic swells.
But despite the parallels between the two records, the singer resists comparing them too directly. "They're from different times and different places," he offers. "Different eras. The songs were coming from a different place."
He isn't forthcoming about what exactly inspired this batch of songs, but there's no question that his life now is very different from what it was a decade ago. When he wrote Sea Change, he was reeling from a fresh breakup, resulting in a dejected collection of heartbroken laments; these days, he's a 43-year-old father of two, and this perhaps explains why the new material sounds comparatively even-keeled. Even when he sings about loneliness, as on the cinematically soaring "Blue Moon," his delivery is serene.
"I ultimately think that the songs do come from personal experience, or at least observation," he notes. "I think songs can even come from what's happening in the culture at the time."
Beck's ornate approach to folk rock on Morning Phase marks a big change from his early forays into roots music. In the late '80s and early '90s — before he hit it big with 1993's tongue-in-cheek rap hit "Loser" — he dabbled in traditional folk and blues, giving the music his own surreal twist and establishing an abstract lyrical style.
"During that period of time, acoustic music or folk music had a lot of baggage. At least by my peers, it was looked down on. It was thought of as sentimental or clichéd or kind of easy listening," he remembers. "On some of the earlier records, I had to navigate around certain clichés, which was probably a good thing at the time. But at the same time, you lose out on a lot of other aspects of the singer-songwriter tradition that have a lot of resonance and emotional power."
This unwelcoming cultural climate pushed him to expand his sound and create postmodern masterpieces like 1996's Odelay. These days, however, folk music is far less contentious. "I feel like that territory is much more safe and an accessible form of expression," he says.
Having satisfied his acoustic inclinations for the time being, Beck plans to return to a more upbeat sound with his next record, which he says will feature high-energy songs designed for live shows. He's been working on this latest album over the past year, and hopes to have it out later in 2014; after our conversation ends, he will be heading into the studio for another session.
His prolific output is impressive considering that, over the past decade, Beck has suffered from a serious back injury that temporarily hindered his ability to tour or write music.
"It's one of those things that I haven't talked about a lot because part of me feels like it's maybe not that interesting," he says. "It's really defined a lot of things for me for the last eight or nine years, personally, but I don't assume that that's interesting to anybody else."
These days, he's feeling "much, much better," and the experience gave him a new outlook on creating music. He reveals, "The experience of being sidelined for a length of time gives you a different perspective than you have when you're continually working and going from one thing to the next."
Judging by Morning Phase's beautifully meditative sound, it seems that this period of reflection has been put to good use. And while it's been fascinating to follow his unpredictable grab bag of projects in recent years, it's clear that Beck is back to doing what he's best at: just making songs.