It’s been clear for many years now that Beck can do whatever he wants. Since his breakout hit “Loser,” the musical Renaissance Man has explored sounds from funk to folk, art rock to Americana. With every left turn, Beck’s oddball lyrics and trippy textures have followed: there was the sample-heavy, genre-bending “Odelay” with its unexpectedly refined strangeness; the dreamy and unsettling folk detours of “Mutations” and “Sea Change”; and the psychedelic funk rock explorations of “Guero” and “The Information.” And then, in 2014, Beck revealed the optimistic and serene side of his “Sea Change” style with “Morning Phase.” The record was his most beautiful work to date and famously triumphed over Beyoncé’s self-titled LP for Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys. Now, after countless rumors and false starts, Beck has returned with his latest left turn, the aptly named “Colors.”
Beck released “Dreams,” the lead single to “Colors,” nearly two and a half years ago. The track is a rock song at its heart, but its layers of new wave synths and drum machine beats transform it into his grooviest song in years. Beck himself explained that the song “started out as a heavy garage rock thing and became much more of a dance — some kind of hybrid.” This creation process is crystal clear in the song’s final iteration and is representative of the rest of the album. It seems like Beck set out to make a rough-around-the-edges rock epic, fell in love with dance music somewhere along the way and merged the two with stellar production.
Several songs on “Colors” fully embrace the dance style of 2010s alternative rock. The opening title track combines heavy synths with an ocarina riff and trippy vocals; it couldn’t be more colorful. Single “Up All Night” is a lively pop song with an EDM-esque piano melody, and “Square One” is just as lively with its sparkling textures and foot-tapping beat. The album is a perfection of the alternative dance rock movement that has gained traction this decade through Coldplay’s “A Head Full Of Dreams” and bands like Atlas Genius and St. Motel.
Meanwhile, other tracks on the album reveal their rock roots a bit more clearly. “I’m So Free” stands out as the most guitar-heavy track with riffs reminiscent of Blur’s “Song 2.” But this is about as ’90s as this record gets. As opposed to the sloppy, almost grunge style of Beck’s early albums, these songs are clean-cut and intricately produced. The reggae feel of “No Distraction” is not a forced theme but rather a masterfully applied flavor to this otherwise straight rock song, and “Dear Life”’s slightly off-kilter guitar solos call back to Beck’s natural strangeness.
Speaking of natural strangeness, “Colors” falls short in an important way: it’s not quite a “Beck album” in the traditional sense. All of these songs are fantastic. I can’t name a weak one. But most of them are missing Beck’s signature weirdness: the crazy samples, the completely out-there lyrics. Aside from die-hard fans, most listeners, enjoying the vivacity of the rest of the album, wouldn’t think twice about this void if it weren’t for the 2016 single “Wow.” This flute-sampling, bass-heavy, “giddy up giddy up” jam is classic Beck. (What other 47-year-old could pull off “It’s irrelevant, elephant in the room goes boom / Standing on the lawn doin’ jiu jitsu / Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzu?”) “Wow” sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of “Colors” in the best way possible, and unfortunately it teases us with how wonderfully weird the rest of the album could have been.
Nevertheless, Beck has proven a few times before that he doesn’t need to fully embrace his weird side to make a great record, and one can easily add “Colors” to this list. His 13th album is his most fun and consistent in at least a decade, and it is remarkable that, all these years after “Loser,” Beck is still finding new ways to excite and intrigue.