Blackbird Chain
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

  1. Blackbird Chain (4:26)
    Available on Morning Phase.
    Justin Meldal-Johnsen: Bass (Electric)
    Beck Hansen: Celeste, Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric), Producer, Vocals, Vocals (Background)
    Roger Joseph Manning Jr.: Clavinet, Piano, Vocals (Background)
    David Campbell: Conductor
    Matt Sherrod: Drums
    Jason Falkner: Guitar (Electric)
    Smokey Hormel: Guitar (Electric)
    Greg Leisz: Guitar (Pedal Steel)
    Ben Baptie: Mix
    Tom Elmhirst: Mix
    Matt Mahaffey: Organ
    Joey Waronker: Percussion
Blackbird Chain [Version (a)]:

Give me traces of your lifeblood flowing in a loving cup
And tell me I'm dream dream dream dreaming and I'll never wake up
A keepsake in a dresser drawer from who-knows-where
A symbol of your exegesis and a full-length mirror

I'll never never never never never never refuse you
I'll never never never never never never refuse you
My blackbird chain, my blackbird chain
My blackbird chain, my blackbird chain

An SOS from an outpost there on a common air
I could read you a brief account of a last frontier
We could come to understand what's wrong as right as rain
At rock bottom of a hollowed ground, we stake your claim

I'll never never never never never never refuse you
I'll never never never never never never refuse you
A blackbird chain, blackbird chain
A blackbird chain, a blackbird chain

I'll never never never never never never refuse you
I'll never never never never never never refuse you
My blackbird chain, a blackbird chain
A blackbird chain, a blackbird chain
The Song:

"Blackbird Chain" can be found on Morning Phase.

Beck says this was one of a few songs that he brought to Morning Phase from an album he had worked on in Nashville. That album was a fairly traditional country album, that Beck never felt hit the right level of completion and he abandoned it. However, he kept a few songs over and brought them to Morning Phase. Looking at the credits, I believe that bass, drums, organ, and pedal steel were done in Nashville; then later on, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Joey Waronker and Smokey Hormel added their parts to that. It really seems to be a song where Beck's two main recording bands all worked on the song (albeit apparently at separate times, a few years apart).

Beck explained to NPR that while many of the Nashville songs were traditional country, "Blackbird Chain" was an attempt to bring something "slightly new" to the form. In fact, he said in another interview, that it was written to break up the monotony of all the traditional Nashville songs he had been attempting. To that end, he called the song "ambitious structurally," noting its time signature changes and mood shifts. The music does mix different sounds into its country form, including a very soulful bassline and subtle strings. Also, Beck's calm languid vocals lead the song beautifully; he sounds sometimes like he's just talking but it is a such a perfect fit. As Beck explained, "Blackbird" had "some of the country rock feeling to it, but it had something else too--a certain easiness to it, [and] then the chorus has a certain grandeur and openness."

Lyrically, "Blackbird Chain" is fairly straightforward thematically, though with some unique images and lines. The first verse focuses entirely on keepsakes--those things about a person from your past that you can't forget, and stay with you over time: lifeblood, dreams, items in drawers, thoughts.

Somewhat hauntingly, Beck sings to these keepsakes that he will never let them go, this person will never be out of his mind. He's holding on tight to the past. With this, the second verse contains more pleading: "we could come to understand what's wrong" as he sends out an SOS from his loneliness (very much like in "Blue Moon").

"Blackbird Chain" is one of those skillful lyrics where much is left unexplained. And actually, on a very surface level, these could be read straightforwardly as a somewhat romantic lyric. Reading between the lines though, and infusing it with some of the surrounding Morning Phase themes of isolation and trying to find hope, make "Blackbird Chain" even deeper and more affecting.

Played live 55 times:
Earliest known live version: April 9, 2014
Latest known live version: January 11, 2019

2014 Morning Phase tour

Beck played 57 shows in 2014 as part of his Morning Phase tour. "Blackbird Chain" showed up at 27 of them, usually at shows that had "acoustic" sets (ie., not festivals). The song on stage follows the very straightforward, classic arrangement that can be heard on the record (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/instrumental verse/chorus). It was regularly highlighted by Roger Joseph Manning's piano solo during the instrumental verse. At one show (San Francisco on Sept. 19), Roger was sick and missed the show, and Smokey Hormel dropped an electric guitar solo in his place (which was very cool).

Here is a good example of how Beck and his band played the song throughout the Phase tour (though sound is a little fuzzy):

2015-2017 post-Morning Phase tour

Beck toured sporadically for a few years after Morning Phase. "Blackbird Chain" stayed in his repertoire, but he pulled it out at a lesser frequency than in 2014 (around 1/3 of the time instead 1/2). Roger Joseph Manning Ur. continues to highlight the song on his piano during the instrumental part.

Here is a performance from 2016:

It is a very nice song on stage, lightly dynamic with a lot of space for details, but Beck has not yet given it any sort of reconstruction (minor or major).

Except twice: Beck has done the song two times without a full band. He played the song by himself on acoustic guitar, on June 30, 2015 at a small gig in London. (Not aware of a recording.) Also on November 20, 2017, Beck again did it on acoustic guitar, but Roger Joseph Manning Jr. was there to play piano with him (also, no recording).

2017-2018 Colors tour

Beck had a rotation of Morning Phase songs that he played in an acoustic band setup in the middle of his longer shows. "Blackbird Chain" was a part of that rotation, but only barely. He played it at the first two shows of the tour in Nov. 2017, and then over the next year, just four more times. He did it each time with his band, and Roger continued to take nice piano breaks on it.

Just after the tour, Beck also did it one more time with half of his band at a benefit gig. It was done with 2 acoustic guitars, piano, bass, and no drummer or lead electric licks. Not a drastic remake, but a trimmed down one worth noting.