Release Date: Oct 13, 2017
Record label: Capitol
Over the course of Beck’s 25-year career, he’s tapped into a multitude of styles, including lo-fi avant-garde, country, alt-rock, hip-hop, funk, orchestral, and singer/songwriter, among many others. It’s only fitting, then, that his latest collection, Colors, reveals yet another persona. True to its name, it’s a jovial psychedelic mixture of ‘60s rock, ‘80s synth pop and modern electronic that, like many of its predecessors, finds Beck channeling the current musical zeitgeist while also maintaining his trademark sensibilities and personality.
Throughout Beck's nearly 25-year career, his finest moments – oddball hip-hop hits like "Loser" and "Where It's At," the 1999 funk romp Midnite Vultures, the 2014 folk-rock dark horse Morning Phase – have mixed sincere musical crate-digging with winking self-awareness. It's a balancing act that can easily tilt into cheap parody, and while many artists have followed Beck's lead (Father John Misty being the most prominent recent example), few have done it with Beck's range, wit or soul. Which is why Colors is so welcome; it's a brilliant attempt to reckon with – and put his own stamp on – modern pop in the late 2010s.
It’s been 27 long months since Beck dropped the sassy funk strut of ‘Dreams’ – technically the lead single from this, his 13th studio LP. Then, a full year later, came the equally forward-thinking ‘WOW’ – a mad, wonky thing that managed to somehow combine hip-hop and panpipes, whilst also rhyming “shih tzu” with “jiu jitsu”, in a way that actually worked unfathomably well. Then nothing, bar a scrapped release date and another year’s wait.
Beck is not one for repeating himself. Each record of his 12-album, 25-year career brings something a little bit different to the table – while remaining distinctly Beck. 1996’s ‘Odelay’ was the beer-chugging party starter, 2002’s ‘Sea Change’ saw him get dead serious and orchestral, and on 2008’s ‘Modern Guilt’, the multi-instrumentalist dabbled with filthy garage-rock.
Fifteen years ago, Beck released his heartbroken folk opus Sea Change — and then toured with the Flaming Lips and put out 2005’s Guero, his rowdy reunion with “Where It’s At” producers the Dust Brothers. So it’s not unprecedented that he’s followed up 2014’s Grammy-winning, sepia-toned Morning Phase with the kaleidoscopic burst of his 13th LP, the perhaps-too-appropriately titled Colors. And, true to form, the chameleonic artist has handled his latest sonic shift with ease.
If you think you've heard this album before, don't worry, you're not losing your mind. Bits of Beck's brand new Colors have been trickling out for years. "Dreams" landed as a single way back in 2015, followed by "Wow" one year later. "Up All Night" first appeared in a watch commercial more than a year ago.
Time was ripe in 2017 for Beck to deliver a "fun" album, the kind of elastic, eclectic pop that was his calling card back in the '90s. The last time Beck truly cut loose was maybe 2006's The Information, which was lighter than either the coiled 2008 LP Modern Guilt or the slow, sepia-toned Morning Phase, which took home the Album of the Year Grammy in 2015. For all of its bustling beats and hooks, The Information carried a paranoiac undertone suiting the age of Total Information Awareness, a subtle political commentary that's utterly absent on the bright, shiny Colors.
If the respective rises of alternative rock and hip-hop were the most significant musical developments of the 1990s, we can credit Beck Hansen more than virtually anyone else (save for maybe the Beastie Boys) with bringing them together. But he also brought in folk, avant-noise, country, and Princely electro-funk; the dominant sonic signatures of his first and greatest hit were a slide guitar and an electric sitar. Namely, he took The Replacements.
It’s typical of the restless Beck that his follow-up to the pensive Morning Phase is a loose-limbed hymn to hedonistic pop. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but given Beck’s ability to redraw rock’s boundaries, Colors is depressingly short of real surprises, its energy a poor substitute for drama or ideas. I’m So Free is sterile skate-punk with a feeble rap, while the shiny Up All Night fails to transcend its pedestrian title.
In 20-plus years of leading, usurping and subverting trends, Beck has found himself at turns hailed, misunderstood and under-appreciated. But in 2014 he was fully embraced by the mainstream and awarded a Grammy for Morning Phase. Three years later, Colors looks to consolidate that success. The album comes across like Beck.
By no means is this an average album. In fact, there is nothing moderate about it at all: Colors is extreme, featuring some of the best and worst songs that Beck has ever written. After the wave of melancholy that engulfed 2014’s Grammy award-winning Morning Phase – created after a traumatic spinal injury – he has returned robust and emboldened.
There aren’t many popular major label artists, let alone those who won a Grammy for Album of the Year, as unpredictable as Beck. So it was unlikely he would follow his somewhat surprising 2015 win in that coveted category with Morning Phase Part 2, i.e. another collection of atmospheric, relaxed songs considered a cousin to 2002’s Sea Change. But since Beck has been teasing us with singles preceding the release of this long awaited project from as far back as last year, the sonic shift shouldn’t be surprising to fans that have stayed tapped in.
Beck’s chameleonic tendency to shift musical styles and textures from one album to the next can be traced to the producers with whom he works. The shuffling, sample-laden Odelay and Guero resulted from his collaboration with the Dust Brothers; the often abstruse singer was able to conjure melancholic sincerity on Sea Change with the help of Nigel Godrich; and Danger Mouse’s crisp, tight production kept the eclectic Modern Guilt focused and cohesive. For his 13th album, Colors, Beck taps pop producer Greg Kurstin, his keyboardist from the Sea Change Tour.
There aren't many (any?) artists who have remained both critically and commercially respected since the early-Nineties Gen-X era like Beck Hansen. Beck's reaching his twenty-fifth year as a recording artist with his thirteenth studio album Colors and, despite openly acknowledging that he is a Scientologist, has remained a valuable asset to American pop, rock, folk and even experimental hip-hop throughout that time. On his previous record, Beck returned to his Folk roots with a decade-on sequel to one of his most successful records - Sea Change - with another equally acclaimed album, Morning Phase which saw him ease into his third decade on the popular conscious.
Looking back at his catalogue, there’s a fold around 2002’s Sea Change, a point most commonly read as evidence of maturation. Slacker-rap/stoner-folk persona dissolves, and Beck moves away from musical expressions of ambivalence and apathy: mellow moods presented with a degree of vulnerability took the place of witty granular genre-play topped by strings of wordplay. (What often goes unremarked is that his once newfound sincerity maintained a masculine invulnerability: guarded, vague, and intentionally obtuse, delivering words that were less playful but equally empty — lyrical Rorschach tests nonetheless).
Those expecting Colors to be Beck’s return to pop should ponder how limited their definition of pop is. After all, his previous record—2014’s ruminative, twilit Morning Phases—was awarded Album of the Year by Grammy voters, as good an indicator as any (apologies to Bob Newhart and Vaughn Meader) that he made a pop album. If a return to pop means wide-ranging sonic assemblages cut with oblique texts, Colors doesn’t really qualify: It’s largely a plainspoken, cohesive work, closer in spirit to single-minded efforts like Morning Phases, Modern Guilt, or even Sea Change.
Beck Beck may be one of pop's preeminent shape-shifters, but when you get down to it he really only makes two kinds of albums: "fun" albums, which find him in irreverent sonic prankster mode ("Odelay," "Midnite Vultures"), and "serious" albums with more of an earnest, singer-songwriter bent ("Mutations," "Sea Change"). He's been focusing on the latter approach for about a decade now, and the outcry surrounding his Album of the Year Grammy win over Beyoncé for 2014's pleasant but vanilla "Morning Phase" suggested that it was time for the pendulum to swing back. "Colors" is just the course correction Beck needed, a vibrant, catchy record that sounds like modern pop without obscuring his singular voice.
Having released the autumnal beauty of 2014’s ‘Morning Phase’ in the chill of February, Beck opts to deploy his most unashamedly summery record in the middle of October. He’ll never learn. The languid majesty of its predecessor is nowhere to be seen on these highly polished, highly programmed pop songs. You’ll know the joyous ‘Dreams’ from 2015 and the loose, but ephemeral, ‘Wow’ from 2016: the first two parts of the longest promotional campaign in music history.
Colors is like diet Beck. It’s the Beck record no one listening to Odelay in ’96 would ever have believed existed. It’s the lemonade stand on the too hot day and the ice melts reducing the potency of the product. It’s the Kool-Aid made on the wrong ratios. It's weak ….