Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Breakfast with Beck

Lucie Lozinski

Beck, an artist notoriously difficult for the music industry to classify as his style evolves, is back with an album that gained him entrance into a new genre distinct from his previous work. That genre is breakfast music; a category that seems easily definable but perhaps is just as slippery as the artists it includes. Morning Phase would be in the running, if there were such a race, for best breakfast
album of the year.

I wouldn’t call myself a Beck fan, but I am truly a fan of breakfast music. During the school week, I wake up around dawn. I live in a house of college students, so morning is my only chance at solitude. I don’t need or even particularly want music during the meditative, fresh hours of early light. The birds and the relative silence are enjoyable enough. Why listen to anything then? Certain activities seem designed to complement this already pristine experience. Some mornings I pray. Others, I do yoga. Sometimes I write. And sometimes I listen to music. It’s kind of like snorting a drug instead of swallowing it. Every day, the art I consume gets digested with all of the other stuff I’m taking in, like my work, relationships, weather, goals, moods—whatever. Consuming art first thing in the morning is like sending it straight to the brain. The effects are immediate.

For that reason, I’m cautious about what I allow entry to my ears that early. Most music is just noise that gets me thinking about something. I don’t want what I listen to in the morning to throw me off my natural balance. I just want it to support my existing experience and make waking up and breakfasting as pleasant as it can be. I’m not alone in this quest. Typing “breakfast” into the search bar on yields over two hundred playlists. Many people crave a musical aid to help them bask in the lusciousness of the morning.

Music can make the gradient richer—darks blacker, lights brighter—by adding a base layer to my daily actions. The right artist can serve as a sponsor, gently persuading me to follow through with actions that are hard to stimulate. A song can catalyze me to shelf the day’s stress and step into a ring of energy, or it can indulge sorrowful feelings until I sink into a sad oblivion. This type of listening isn’t at all about appreciating the skill or the methods that went into recording a track; it’s all about the listening experience, and it requires us to think about life in a cinematic way.

Most of us can still remember mix-tapes, the first way to make a custom series of songs for a given event. Then there were mix-CDs, followed by playlists for the computer or iPod. New technologies that blend this customization with the existing convention of radio continue to spring up to make playlists require less and less effort from listeners: satellite radio, YouTube,, Pandora, Spotify, and 8tracks—a newer music streaming website that calls back the humanness of song collections through its user generated playlists. Our era of data mining keeps making it easier for companies to find commonalities among artists or even specific songs to deliver mood music for any time. Most of my friends think of music in terms of purpose: workout music, pre-game music, study music, dance music, night drive music, day-trip music. While this method of categorizing music may not be a new idea, people can now listen in this cinematic way with little to no effort required. No more crafting mix-tapes.

I buy into this trend most of the time. After all, isn’t it what has made radio shows popular? Radio DJs have been delivering mixes of music based on mood, weather, current events, etc. for almost a century, and radio is generally viewed as a positive development for musicians. Still, I acknowledge the drawbacks that streaming music according to activity can have on the consumption of musicians’ work. Using a playlist for a party is practically always a good idea, yes, but by turning to a computer generated playlist any time we want to listen to music, we’re switching rapidly from one album or artist to the next, never hearing an artist’s intentions for us: the album in its entirety. We don’t get the songs in context. But, then again, who cares what the artist intends?

In an interview in 2013, Beck acknowledged that “the music business is changing so much, and the way people listen to music is changing,” so before releasing any of the material he’s been working on, he “thought a lot about what it means to make music, do people care?” Beck’s last release prior to Morning Phase was his Song Reader, a book of original sheet music that had never appeared in previous recordings, with the idea that consumers would have to put in some effort to hear it. Beck, understandably, sees the sad undertones of the easy streaming plan of today’s music industry. Knowing that Beck has been struggling to cope and shift with the shifting business, I believe that Morning Phase must be listened to as another attempt to get our attention, to make us think about his work rather than randomly getting one track at a time from some playlist.

Morning Phase attracted my attention as a different kind of album immediately. Its title suggested that it might be a breakfast album. “Morning” signaled breakfast to me in an obvious way, and even “Phase” hinted that this album would understand the necessary cycle—the beginning, middle, and end—I associate with breakfast music. Together, the words “Morning Phase” might also be read as Beck’s grieving period for the music industry that once was. He’s released an album of songs that are meant to be consumed together, while he realizes that the time for that type of listening is largely passed.

By the time I saw Morning Phase advertised, my demands for breakfast music had really taken shape. I wasn’t finding breakfast music in specific artists—some might credit Jack Johnson as a breakfast artist, but none of his inconsequential music could truly satisfy me in the mornings—or specific songs. Norah Jones, for example, reigned queen of the breakfast music during the early stages of my breakfast music fandom with lazy, mellow songs like “Sunrise” and “Don’t Know Why.” These songs appeared on albums that did not stick exclusively to the morning mood, however. Come Away With Me (2002), for instance, begins with a morning track but makes its way through the rest of the day, with songs like “Shoot the Moon,” “Turn Me On,” and “The Long Day is Over”—songs that simply don’t resonate with an early morning listener. Much of the album seems more suited to cooking dinner than breakfast. Although she had nailed a few breakfast songs, I started to realize they weren’t enough to satisfy a full morning of waking up. When she released The Fall in 2009, I was disappointed with the lack of dimension of almost every track, but I quickly realized the album as a whole could be useful. I tried letting it run through my speakers as I poured cereal, coffee and orange juice. I slowly made my way through all of it, music and breakfast, in a chair in my backyard.

It took falling for The Fall to realize that my problem with streaming breakfast music is the lack of narration. Good breakfast music must be a full album. Even when using a completed playlist from 8tracks, where there is a clear start and finish, the songs feel too much like a random assortment with no narrative arc. Ignoring the musician’s intentions is fine if I’m going on a drive, where the music starts with the ignition and ends when I park; or if I’m taking a shower; or if I’m taking shots before going out. When I’m waking up, however, I appreciate the artist’s gentle prodding to get out of breakfast mode. With breakfast music, tracks must flow into each other. They can’t all be too similar, or I won’t feel like I’ve made any progress by listening. Listening to breakfast music is my first potential accomplishment of the day. If I’m streaming from Pandora, there’s no definite end; it could drag on forever, which, to me, is a night-time idea.

Norah Jones takes me on an easy ride through brunch, but by the end, I’ve completed an incremental transformation with her, just as the sun has almost imperceptibly transitioned from its morning position on the sideline to playing center. A breakfast album should, ever so subtly, bring listeners through a metamorphosis, from the wonder of first opening one’s eyes to the decision to make something happen.

The first track on Jones’s The Fall, “Chasing Pirates,” provides a punchy but low-key traveling beat that marks the easy beginning of something; it mirrors my decision to get up and start breakfast. Its steady pace and quick transitions are the perfect complement for gathering ingredients from the cabinets, mixing things, and generally getting the day moving. The song lacks strong dynamics. It travels along the string from point A to point B with no real obstacles.

By the time we get midway through The Fall, it’s clear that the overall feeling is getting over a broken heart, building up an independence out of the broken pieces left over. A breakup album is definitely not upbeat enough to wake up to, but this is skips over the breakup and cuts right to the  quiet motivation that clicks into place long after the split, that subtle decision to engage oneself with some point in the future, to stop sulking, to get up and just start walking. The drums carry the entire album forward. Electric guitar and piano, and even Jones’s vocals, dabble on each track, but the continuous beat is what unites all of the songs. Some songs, like “Waiting,” have no drums, but in those cases, the guitar and bass keep that same forward rhythm. And the beauty of the album is that, even though it’s mostly about this rhythm of recovery, the drums are completely undramatic. They seem nothing but necessary, like a heartbeat. 

The Fall might not have had any particularly interesting songs that could stand alone. Take for an example the tacky opening lines of “It’s Gonna Be”:

   If all we talk about is money
   Nothing will be funny, honey
   Now that everyone’s a critic
   It’s makin’ my mascara runny

The obvious rhyme scheme makes me cringe. The lyrics’ simplicity is like a preachy children’s book, concise without being clever. Yet as part of the overall narrative of the album, the cheesiness of this track seems appropriate. It’s like the lack of creativity I feel when I do spring cleaning, an activity that simply has to be done. I can’t blame myself for falling into a cliche if it’s something humans must do. I picture Jones packing her things into her car and driving away from her lover, writing these lines. She doesn’t need to reshape her feelings into witty lines. The moment isn’t about being witty. It’s a straightforward, driven track that feels necessary to her escape back to finding her independence.

After the first success I found when playing The Fall through my breakfast time, I started making a habit of it. I wanted to see when it would fail. It worked for both my solitary cereal mornings and extended brunches of cooking with friends. It’s an album that helps me say, “Enough. Let’s get this day rolling.” It moves us gently through a hazy time and, by the end of it—the album closes with a fun cabaret track titled “Man of the Hour”—we feel like Jones has made a lighthearted decision to be with someone new, not forever, but for now. It’s about a relationship that’s decidedly unromantic:

   I know you’ll never bring me flowers
   Flowers, they will only die
   And though we’ll never take a shower together,
   I know you’ll never make me cry

Jones isn’t about a lifelong commitment anymore. She’s interested in her man of this hour. I finish the album feeling like I don’t need to make any grand, consequential decisions today. The alarm clock doesn’t mean I have to figure my life out. It only requires me to get out of bed.

As soon as I saw the title of his new album, I suspected that Beck understood. Morning Phase suggests the completion of a passing, even fleeting, time. The strength of the album, similar to The Fall’s, is its full cycle rather than any single tracks. Just from viewing the tracklist, I saw words evocative of the ideal wake-up experience, like “Cycle,” “Morning,” “Phase,” and “Morning Light.” Another clue that Morning Phase isn’t meant to be chopped up and scattered throughout the day is the way tracks are paired. Cycle, a forty second instrumental track, leads into the lazy acoustic guitar strumming of “Morning.” Later, “Phase” throws us back to the symphonic beginning with a little over a minute of instrumental interlude.

Even the bell-like piano riff that starts and ends “Morning” sounds vaguely like someone calling, “Good morning; good morning to you.” The notes follow the same inflection of those words. The first real vocals come in shortly after, accompanied by faint rolls of wind that I’m still not convinced aren’t coming through my window. Together with the drums that seem to ride the border between on-time and late, we get an easily pulled in to Beck’s morning journey.

Again aligning himself with the breakfast expertise of Norah Jones, Beck doesn’t seem to be facing turmoil in this album. He’s in a place post-turmoil and still heading towards a deeper satisfaction. The first lyrics give an immediate sense of Beck’s being over it all, ready to embrace something new:

   Woke up this morning
   From a long night in the storm
   Looked up this morning
   Saw the roses full of thorns
   Mountains are falling
   They don’t have nowhere to go

While the message isn’t entirely uplifting, they are nonetheless well suited for first thing in the morning. Yes, again, conditions in the world aren’t quite right. To not acknowledge the downsides is setting yourself up for failure. Beck’s up and seeing clearly. It’s a beautiful day outside, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get hurt in it.

It’s worth mentioning the general reception of Morning Phase as a sequel to Sea Change (2002). The two albums, twelve years apart, share their downbeat sound and Californian folky steadiness, but I’d classify Morning Phase as a revisit to the material in Sea Change rather than a continuation. In 2002, Beck released Sea Change as he coped with the end of his marriage. The sadness in one album carries over to the other, but this time bitterness is replaced with melancholy. The titles themselves give away the distinction between albums. The former springs from a monumental change, a loss, while the latter acknowledges that the mourning phase is just that, a phase. Perhaps it took Beck over a decade to learn to trust again. Or maybe his material isn’t so personal. Perhaps he’s just finally acknowledging the way life works. Certain phases people go through are bigger than moods. During the course of a phase, a change certainly takes place, but it occurs incrementally, almost imperceptibly, unlike a drastic cut. In sync with my requirements for a great breakfast album, Beck seems to have realized something in Morning Phase. The album is an exploration of this growth, not an outpouring of reactions to an unanticipated change.

I’m in good hands with Beck this morning, as I listen to Morning Phase in my room at sunrise. I’m on the third track, “Heart Is A Drum,” which lifts me beyond the slow crooning of “Morning” and into a repetitive rhythm and a message to stir me from the haze:

   Only what you feel
   Keeps you turning when you’re standing still

With a quick crescendo on “see,” Beck’s vocals enter the song, beckoning me to rise with him, and reminding me that the world keeps “turning when you’re standing still.” I’m motivated to get up, to start moving things around. On a breakfast level, this third track is the push, the low-key traveling beat that Jones always nails. I’m past all the lazy stretching, throwing around the covers, and looking out the window. I’m onto walking downstairs to the kitchen, pouring a glass of water for myself, and pouring another one for my coffee maker.

The song doesn’t move through a typical verse-chorus-bridge dynamic structure. There are several pieces, and one drops into the next with no dramatic rhythm changes. I’m now transitioning from the breakfast prep to organizing my room. I have a bowl of cereal with me now. I, following the song, change seamlessly from one activity to the next, propelled forward by this gentle but quick pace.

But Beck warns me not to listen blindly. Beyond its breakfast album purpose of motivating me out of sleepiness, “Heart Is A Drum” offers life advice:

   You lost your tongue when you fall from pendulum [along those lines]
   Your heart is a drum
   Keeping time with everyone
   Need to find someone
   To show me how to play it slow

Beck warns me about getting swept up in the fast pace. This morning time is pleasant and reflective, but he reminds me to bring this meditative mindset with me when I leave the house. Instead of riding the pendulum, I’ll remember to “play it slow” today, to go at my own pace. Beck reminds me, in a casual and undemanding way, that I don’t need to keep up with the people around me.

Fourth and fifth tracks “Say Goodbye” and “Blue Moon” also couple well together. The first brings me down to the sadness that comes with starting something new, like the day, in my case. “These are the words we use to say goodbye,” are the repeated words of the downbeat song. But by “Blue Moon,” Beck picks us back up. The light, punchy strumming and picking on guitar and mandolin, the heartbeat percussion, the reverberated crescendoing oohs that come in after the first verse, even the major-minor-major chord progression itself—all of the musical elements blended together create a sense of rising, growing, swelling, overcoming, traveling. The opening lines remind me of the good in getting outside: “I’m so tired of being alone. These penitent walls are all I’ve known.” This is one of the more dynamic songs on the album, well placed as we come into some of the heavier tracks mid-album.

One aspect of a great breakfast album is an organic sound. Jones usually doesn’t deviate far from basic folk or cabaret instruments and drums that range from a shaker egg to the steady, but light, drums throughout The Fall. Another kingpin of the evolution of breakfast music is Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who gathered most of his success long after his death in 1974. His last album, Pink Moon, is another longstanding perfect breakfast album. Drake is known to be one of Beck’s influences—the latter has recorded covers of several songs from Pink Moon, and even his originals seem to borrow from Drake’s songs.

Morning Phase seems to boast its use of effects, but it keeps its instruments basic. Beck goes heavy on reverb and the various sound effects that make the album so rich, but he tries to stray from synthesized instruments or anything that sounds electronic and artificial.

By “Phase,” the symphonic interlude, I’ve seriously contemplated my life, I’ve finished my cereal, I’ve done some cleaning. I’m now getting dressed, preparing for the album’s end and my day’s beginning. The interlude reminds me that I’m listening to a full, purposeful work. The next two tracks are sort of like the comedown from the depressing middle tracks, like the cool down after my more difficult yoga routine. I’m almost ready to go. I’m moving in and out of my room, so I don’t catch all of the words, but it doesn’t matter.

And then comes “Waking Light” to wrap it up. His tone is existential. It has been throughout, but here I These songs have accepted the world I’ll need to face later today.

   When the memory leaves you
   Somewhere you can’t make it home
   When the morning comes to meet you
   Rest your eyes on waking light

The lyrics are accepting but realistic—like yes, things can get shitty, but if you look at it all in hindsight, from the comfort of your newfound contentment, you can find beauty and peace alongside whatever was painful. Beck’s new album is reflective, spiritual, inclusive, and authoritative. It’s as if he’s not his own voice but the voice of the universe, checking back on his Sea Change breakup from a comfortable, stable chair and realizing for the first time that he’s been seated. He didn’t just get back up from the fall. He’s made a slow, unnoticeable, steady recovery. 


  1. I've been thinking about it since I posted. I have made Morning Phase out to be a flawless breakfast album, but "Wave," midway through the track list, is just too heavy for morning listening. Beck repeats the word "isolation" slowly in a way that can be depressive. This song doesn't abide by my rule that breakfast music should hold a tone of having gotten through to the other side of something. "Wave" lingers in a state of dark feeling.

    If Morning Phase is a reflection on the Sea Change separation, "Wave" is the song where Beck's remembering gets a little too real. Or, if some critics have said, Morning Phase expresses Beck's back injury and recovery--think of both his mourning phase, where he thinks he can't perform again, and of the recovery phase, where things are finally looking up again, like when the sun rises after a long night--then "Wave" is the song for those times when Beck could hardly move while everyone around him continued to live normal, physical lives.

    Just some thoughts. Will revise soon, though I'm already over the word count.

  2. Lucie,

    This is a wonderful, humane, playful piece--your invented genre "Breakfast Music" will never be forgotten. The mixture of melancholy, resignation, comfort--these come across beautifully. A good friend of mine always starts the day with something absurdly cheerful-- "I Feel Good" by James Brown for example. That seems wrong. The best breakfast song ever, by the way, is "Fourth Time Around" on Blonde on Blonde. DC