Beck Hansen has yet to undergo the deification of Bowie or Prince but, when it comes down to it, he’s a pop chameleon who stands toe to toe. Following the career-making success of ‘Loser’ Beck has delivered twelve albums that have embedded him within a mainstream culture he’s made his best efforts to evade. A wayward eclectic he refuses caricature. Yet unlike his antecedents, his reinventions have not come touted as grand gestures as much as subtle transformations. When they do arrive, they’re underscored by a terminal aversion to making the obvious move.
Like the Bowie of Modern Love, Colors’ Beck is playing it straight. This is no folkie, Hollywood freak or slacker hero, it’s the pop star he’s been evading for the last thirty years. The Californian native spent the ’90s dodging fads, but here he’s twisted the strange possibility of a bouncily bright pop record to his own command. After more than three decades of genre surfing stardom, Beck inhabits a world of mainstream pop, executing a meticulous and instantly catchy record.
Beck’s musical hybrids have come to life through collaborations with a cavalcade of notable producers. He’s worked with lo-fi luminary Calvin Johnson, Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich, Danger Mouse and the Dust Brothers. Colors throws forth another unlikely pairing. Here he’s teamed up with industry golden boy and super-producer Greg Kurstin. For those unfamiliar, the LA recordist has acted as the Grammy-winning producer of Sia, Adele and Lily Allen’s landmark albums. What Beck and Kurstin have concocted embraces the prevailing climate of pop optimism which descends over popular music. In doing so they’ve jettisoned Beck’s more obscurest leanings for something big, direct and brightly obvious.
In the leadup to Colors, Beck has led with the strongest foot forward. Singles ‘Wow’ and ‘Up All Night’ are the album’s high points and exemplary of what Beck has set out to achieve. Yet both lean back into a work of greater complexity. Title track ‘Colors’ shimmers with euphoric release and the wholesome ‘Seventh Heaven’ extends this upbeat vibration. Yet the possible pastiche of ‘I’m So Free’ temporarily shatters this idea. It plays out like something akin to Garbage’s ‘Cherry Lips’: big riffs and an even bigger chorus. A mutant mix of ’00s and ’90s clichés which would have sent the Beck of yesteryear ducking for cover. Beneath the sonic overlay, Beck’s lyrics hint at a bleak humour wrapped in trappings of positivity. ‘Dear Life’ cuts across as a classic piano ballad with a Beatladelic proclivity for melody and sonic adventurism. Yet ‘Dear Life’ and ‘I’m So Free’ seem like little more than diversions by the time Colors swings back into the sparkling stadium pop of ‘No Distraction’, ‘Up All Night’, ‘Square One’ and ‘Dreams’.
‘Wow’ reconciles both of his album’s extremes. Borrowing the drum figure from an identikit club banger, it could be sliced as a cunningly satirical statement of bravado or a serious body mover. “Wow, it’s like right now!” Beck raps as if echoing his listeners’ imagined response. Here Beck sparks up and for a moment he’s as playful as ever.
Hard-line rockers, cynical punks and Gen X holdouts might find Colors a difficult pill to swallow. There’s only a hint of gritty slide guitar blues on ‘Dreams’ to remind the listener that it’s still really him and there is an anonymous character to Colors which leaves a listener questioning why Beck may have come here at all. The words of this non-confessional pop idol might ring a little hollower for those who have come onboard pre-Colors. The album’s narratives of screen addiction come perfect for anonymous radio consumption but may leave those who he’s brought inside on previous records wanting more.
Then again, it’s far from the first time Beck’s ditched the irony and cleverness of his early career. In fact, as the better part of his recent album cycle has unfurled, he’s skewed from innovatively forward-thinking pastiche towards earnest introspection. Colors presents a challenge as to whether the long-time listener can disentangle Beck’s popcraft from his status as a spiritual rebel. Color’s Beck is insular. He isn’t rebelling against the establishment but expectation itself.
The subversive ’90s nihilist in all of us might be screaming, but Beck’s patronage is something which fluctuates. He’s a long haul creative. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Colors is still smuggling in a few more hidden strokes of irony. Perhaps Beck is stabbing back at Kanye West’s 2015 contention that he should relinquish his Grammy for Best Album to Beyoncé. After the heartfelt Morning Phase, maybe he’s simply showing he’s still down-with-the-kids. For one so well versed in demolishing expectation, maybe he’s dissolving the tropes and clichés of the archetypical cult artist. It could simply be Beck maturing, moving onward from his cut-up pastiche and settling into the role of a great American songwriter lending a mercenary allegiance to pop’s present.
Beck is unlikely to be grasping for relevancy. He’s his own biggest critic. Beholden to an irrepressible creativity, he works for his own amusement and defined by wayward trajectories, his inspirations strike from unseen quarters. Yet, even so, Colors may be his most antithetical. Here Beck is no outlaw, he’s working within the fold of normality. Yet coiled within this latest stylistic contortion his intention remains intelligently oblique. If the conceptual veering of Colors is dropping any hints, they’re going to take a while to tease out.
Still, paired with Kurstin on Colors, Beck makes a formidable stab into the heart of pop, embracing the contemporary. Here Beck is masterfully middle of the road. And frankly, it works. Instinctually battling against expectation, he’s writing the songs he could always have made but would never have let himself. For some, that’s a little difficult to reconcile but the professionally enigmatic Beck makes clear there are no limitations.
Colors reminds us that behind his pioneering eclecticism, Beck Hansen is equally hard-working and ambitious. He isn’t striving to be the most interesting artist in rock or some alternative scene. He’s making a grab toward being the most interesting artist in popular music period. Colors isn’t concerned with dissolving musical boundaries but redesigning its listener’s headspace entirely. What’s more is that this poor miserable bastard is, once again, getting away with it too. God help us.
‘Colors’ is out this Friday, October 13. Pre-order here.