The first album I ever owned was the soundtrack to Ghostbusters.
It was on cassette, and it came in a red plastic case. It was chock full of artists I’d never heard of before or since (Alessi? Mick Smiley?), but I loved all these songs. Not because I thought they were very good songs, but because they reminded me of Ghostbusters, which was for a time my very favorite movie.
I’d taped it off the television with our new top-loading VCR – cutting-edge technology in the early ‘80s – and I obsessively watched it, to the point where I had the movie memorized. (Imagine my surprise when I saw the unedited version on HBO. For years I thought the line was “I’ve seen stuff that will turn you white.”) I would play Ghostbusters in the back yard, wearing a backpack and wielding a garden implement, pretending to shoot and trap specters.
As I grew older, I realized the wealth of comedy talent that had participated in Ghostbusters. Not only was it my first exposure to the great Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, but I’d come to realize that the guy who played Egon Spengler was kind of a genius. Harold Ramis had co-written Ghostbusters, along with Animal House and Caddyshack and Stripes, and had directed National Lampoon’s Vacation. If you’re a fan of silly, smart-dumb comedies, that’s a ridiculously awesome resume.
But Ramis’ most enduring achievement, at least to me, is Groundhog Day, the ultimate Bill Murray comedy. Ramis co-wrote and directed the story of a man living the same day again and again until he gets it right, and he infused it with a darkness and an intelligence that sets it above even its pretty brilliant premise. He drew from Murray what was, at that time, his finest performance, world-weary and biting. Groundhog Day remains a favorite.
Harold Ramis, a lifelong denizen of Chicago, died on Feb. 24 from complications associated with an autoimmune disease he fought for four years. He was 69 years old. The 12-year-old version of me, the one with the backpack and the rake, running around the yard chasing ghosts, thanks him immensely. He was quite a talent.
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Cast your mind back, back, back to 1994. It’s the heyday of grunge and flannel, and the waning days of MTV as a musical force. Imagine you’re watching that channel – yes, they used to play music videos, like, all the time – and amidst the angsty Alice in Chains and Soundgarden clips there’s this… weird one. It looks like it was shot on a camcorder, it stars this lanky guy with long hair and a ratty t-shirt, and it features kids dancing in a graveyard and a coffin making the rounds by itself through a city at night. The song is a loopy mix of acoustic slide guitar and a drum loop, with a chorus half-sung in Spanish. It’s remarkably strange.
The song, of course, is “Loser,” and if you’d predicted in 1994 that its author, Beck Hansen, would one day be one of the most overhyped artists on the planet, you’d have been laughed out of the record store. (Yes, they had those in ‘94 too.) But here we are, 20 years later, and Beck’s new album, Morning Phase, has arrived surrounded by a tsunami of best-of-the-year predictions and manufactured excitement.
To be fair, Beck sort of did this to himself. In the two decades since “Loser,” he’s established himself as an unpredictable, yet remarkably consistent artist. He’s a chameleon, ducking in and out of styles with seeming ease, and when he’s not creating collages out of all of pop culture on records like Odelay and The Information, he’s sending up Prince on Midnite Vultures, or dabbling in his own twisted form of the blues on Guero. But many would say his finest achievement was 2002’s Sea Change, which found him putting aside all of those colorful costumes and singing from the heart, over stripped-down acoustic heartbreakers.
To top all that off, Beck’s been absent for the last five years. His previous record, Modern Guilt, had all the hallmarks of a contractual obligation – it was short, simple and uninspired, playing like a collection of b-sides. In the meantime, he’s dabbled in online-only pursuits (like his series of full-album covers), his only physical product being last year’s Song Reader, an album released as sheet music. Fascinating though it was, it wasn’t a new Beck album.
Morning Phase certainly is, but I would bet even Beck was surprised by the hype that surrounded it. He knew what kind of record he’d made, after all – this collection most closely resembles Sea Change, but is even softer, wispier and more delicate. It’s entirely acoustic-based, every song rising up on a slow, deliberate strum or finger-pick pattern. There’s a ‘70s folk vibe to much of it, and the entire thing is coated in a sheen of reverb, lending it a spectral quality. It fills whatever room it’s played in with warmth and soft light.
Like Sea Change, this is a mournful record, full of the left and the leaving. “Say Goodbye” is about doing just that, and the gorgeous “Blue Moon” opens with the line “I’m tired of being alone.” It is Beck’s loneliest album, meant to be played while rocking yourself to sleep, or waiting for the phone to ring. It’s also his prettiest – even more than Sea Change, this is an album about how lovely it is, and none of these 11 songs (and two interludes) breaks that spell. You can get lost in this, drown in it, and die happy.
Morning Phase is lush – strings weave in and out, Roger Manning (of Jellyfish fame) provides subtle piano and keyboard accents, and Stephanie Bennett’s harp appears on more than one track. That it remains quiet and affecting throughout is a triumph of production, which Beck handled himself – this is one of the best-sounding records I’ve heard in a long time. None of that would matter if the songs were not terrific, and for the most part, they are – the album tends to run together into a gauzy whole, but the dense strings of “Wave,” the swaying “Blackbird Chain” and the majestic piano-driven closer “Waking Light” join “Morning” and “Blue Moon” as standouts.
The news of a sonic sequel to Sea Change has left some people suspicious, wondering if Beck really means this music. I suppose a certain amount of that comes with the territory when you make your name as a merry pop culture prankster. Those who prize authenticity above all else will approach Morning Phase with one eyebrow cocked, wondering if this folksiness is yet another suit Beck is trying on, another affectation without investment.
I’ve asked the same questions, but as I said in my Sea Change review, it doesn’t really matter. You can’t prove authenticity anyway – even the most earnest-sounding singer-songwriter could be lying to you – so it means very little. If Beck is pretending to be a singer of heartfelt songs, he’s doing it very well – so well, in fact, that the difference is negligible. A song like “Turn Away” moves me, those high and sweet harmonies hitting me exactly right, and “Waking Light” is so pretty I want to cry. That’s what matters.
Morning Phase is a triumph, one of the finest records Beck has made. It’s the sound of someone seizing every opportunity to add something beautiful to the world. I can’t speak for the hype merchants – I’m not sure why this album arrived with such a head of steam, given its delicate nature. I can only say that it’s as good as I hoped it would be. If I had a time machine, and I could bring this album back to my 1994 self and play it for him, it would make his head explode. No one could have predicted that the “Loser” guy would one day make records as lovely as this. But then, trying to predict what Beck will do next is a fool’s game. For me, I’m just enjoying the ride.
Welcome back, sir. And thanks for Morning Phase. It’s terrific.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.