Pitchfork review by Jillian Mapes
Beck’s 13th album is his most overtly pop record, one filled with sunshine and sadness, but feels connected to little more than a good idea.
At the very start of his career in his early twenties, Beck’s voice blistered and cracked just thinking about the pop zeitgeist. “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack,” he declared, on account of everyone being so bright and perky. About a year later, in 1994, Beck scored his first and biggest hit with “Loser” and became the toast of MTV. From that moment on, he’s been the weirdest guy in music’s normiest rooms, mixing non-sequitur rock sleaze and sad-bastard folk with a cut-and-paste hip-hop sensibility and an Ambien flow. Beck was, essentially, post-genre before that became the dominant trend of music listening in the streaming era. But in the last decade, he’s made the most focused, conventional, and polished albums of his career, 2008’s Modern Guilt and 2014’s Morning Phase—tasteful records that didn’t make the pop charts bend to his quirks like they once did but still garnered acclaim from the establishment. With them, Beck officially became a legacy artist.
This, of course, is when someone like Beck normally would do something unexpected, like make a falsetto’d electrofunk homage to getting freaky on the Sunset Strip. Ostensibly, Beck’s 13th album, Colors, is a left turn—his most overtly pop record. He reunited with Greg Kurstin, who played in his live band before becoming a staple of Top 40 songwriting and production with Kelly Clarkson, Adele, and Sia. Together, they aimed to make an album that “was uplifting, had a lot of energy, and made you want to sing along.” Yet Colors is more like Beck’s downtempo records, Morning Phase and its spiritual predecessor Sea Change, in that it is largely bereft of color. Sure, he plays word association games under the guise of rapping on a couple songs, but even the sonic elements that are supposed to instill his songs with a sense of zaniness—like pan flutes, 808s, and pitched-up vocals on the title track and early single “Wow”—feel more like following pop trends than starting them. The precise Beck-ness appears to be somewhat missing.
There are, however, other artists you can hear on Colors. Album highlight “Dear Life” is Elliott Smith doing the Beatles, down to the jaunty piano line punctuating existential woes. “No Distraction” proves there’s room for more than just Bruno Mars to retread reggae-lite Police hits for the modern age, turning a lament about the attention economy into a love song about choosing your partner over your phone. “I’m So Free” is like the best late-era Weezer single: put aside the trying-too-hard-to-be-an-anthem lyrics and the furious, cringe-y rhymes, and it’s a very catchy power-pop cut.
While donning the various masks of pop music, Beck searches for answers to or an escape from the doldrums of modern life. “Seventh Heaven,” a song that sounds so beachy the sun practically glints off its synths, is actually about hiding away with someone who temporarily makes things seem brighter, living in the hope of leaving the shadows only to say: “We’ll shoot for the empire/Land in the dust pile.” On the twinkling toe-tapper “Square One,” Beck sings of lowered expectations and “learning to enjoy the ride,” but pivots midway to a love song when it becomes too much of a bummer. Even “Dreams,” the album’s best and earliest single (released two years ago), returns to the theme of finding freedom, albeit temporarily through sleep. History is filled with major-key bummer jams from the Supremes’ “Baby Love” to the Smiths’ “Ask,” the tension sharpening each element. The songs on Colors don’t possess that kind of contrast—they just feel out of sync among their upbeat soundscapes, neutral choruses, and quietly disappointed verses.
There’s no harm in becoming bright and perky, or whatever you hated in your early twenties. It’s a rite of passage, even. But for Beck, it’s always been a game of pivots, as if each album represents a man with either an endless supply of ideas or a man completely out of them. Beck has been working on Colors since 2013, and by the sounds of a recent interview, spent a lot of time trying to get the balance of “not retro and not modern” just so. He more or less nailed that bit, but what’s lacking from his Big Happy Pop Record is some kind of strong emotion that could elevate these songs above the “well crafted but innocuous” camp—something more than an idea. I heard the sunny, percussive single “Up All Night” wafting through a department store recently. It put me in a decent mood while I waited in line to buy socks.