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. The result is his most straight-ahead fun album since the Nineties.
The first signs of his new project surfaced in 2015 with the glistening “Dreams”: funky, chrome-plated rhythm guitar with multifarious vocals – falsetto, wildly pitch-shifted – ricocheting like spotlights off a disco ball amid Eighties electro-pop and Seventies stadium-rock flourishes. Over those carpet-bombing hooks, our hero declares himself “about a lightyear from reality,” shouting out a girl (likely his paramour, Marissa Ribisi) who’s making him high. The 2016 single “Wow” found him higher still, with red-eyed trap beats and a kaleidoscope of whistling tones, Beck rhyming “jujitsu” and “girl with a Shih Tzu” with a baked old-school flow. The funniest stoner jam in ages, it was a long way from the moony Morning Phase, but no less compelling.
Both of those songs are highlights of Colors, but so is nearly every track, in terms of off-kilter pop craftsmanship. The title song matches an ocarina-tone melody with cyborg hand claps and vocals apparently jacked from Melle Mel’s “White Lines.” With its music hall piano, “Dear Life” nods to both the Beatles and late indie-folk virtuoso Elliott Smith. It’s a reminder of the tradition Beck comes out of, as is “I’m So Free,” whose title he enunciates to resemble “I’m so fake,” while brightly snarling chord changes recall Nirvana at their most shamelessly inviting.
It’s a sign of the respect Beck commands that his Colors collaborator is Greg Kurstin, the superstar producer-writer who helped Adele create “Hello” – roughly the 21st century’s biggest pop hit. (The men also have history: Kurstin was a keyboardist on Beck’s 2002 Sea Change tour.) Together, they jam-pack each song with sonic ideas, even as they zero in on pop simplicity.
title of the strangely haunting “Fix Me” recalls a certain big-box
Coldplay ballad, likely not by accident. With pretty bell-tone flourishes, its
standout verse declares, “I want you, I want you, I want you, oh, I want
you.” Trite? Arguably. But clichés are clichés for a reason. And in the
right hands, the everyday can feel utterly fresh and essential all over again.
Which is exactly what happens here.