Beck tries something new, doesn’t quite work

Beck Hansen is an artist known for not having a “genre,” a term already so arbitrary that, from the right perspective, no artists stick to their “genre.” It’s Beck’s shtick, however, to have been termed in such a genre-defying method, and despite my general suspicion of genre to begin with, his reputation isn’t unearned.

It’s true that Beck has experimented with music more than most other artists in the spotlight. He’s known best for his days of alt-rock and folk from the ‘90s and early ‘00s, a period of his in which hits such as “Loser,” “Where it’s At” and “E-Pro” made him a household name. His time with the acoustic guitar is where he’s most successful, but he’s also experimented with electronic elements on “The Information” and with Latin themes in “Guero.”

Another appealing factor of Beck is that his music is truly his. He writes all his own songs and he’s an avid multi-instrumentalist: what could be called a one-man-band. It’s refreshing to see an artist signed under such a large label as Capitol Records still more-or-less in control of their own work. Beck’s experimentation and genre-hopping can be hit-or-miss, but it’s all his in the end, and that alone commands some degree of respect.

It’s for reasons like this that I found “Colors,” his thirteenth studio album, to be so disappointing. To set the context surrounding this disappointment, it’s important to refer to his twelfth album, “Morning Phase.”

The reader may remember the 2015 Grammys in which Beck’s “Morning Phase” won album of the year. Beyoncé’s self-titled was among the albums that it beat out, a fact that prompted Kanye West to suddenly take the stage and insist that her album should have won over Beck’s. It served as a nice callback to his similar stunt with Taylor Swift a few years prior, and really showed Beck’s patience and general good vibes. He had nothing bad to say about Kanye at the event or afterwards, in fact calling him a musical genius instead. Kanye later apologized.

“Morning Phase” was perhaps the most meaningful album we’ve gotten from Beck. It called back to 2002’s “Sea Change” with its spacey folk elements, a fact that some critics applauded and others detested. Similarities aside, “Morning Phase” was an emotional ride, a folk album that captured the full breadth of what folk could do and an album that no-doubt deserved a Grammy.

Written and produced entirely by Beck, the album was undeniably his and captured an overwhelmingly pained and nostalgic sound. His first record since 2008’s “Modern Guilt,” it was one hell of a comeback.

It’s understandably difficult to come back from such a success, and Beck was in no hurry to impress. He gave us a taste of what “Colors” would be shortly after the Grammys, dropping the single “Dreams.” It’s mix on the album, two years later, is slightly different, but it’s much the same song, and set the tone for the whole album. It starkly contrasts with “Morning Phase,” bringing to the table instead a hopelessly overproduced pop song, produced by Beck and pop-superstar Greg Kurstin.
Kurstin is one of those miracle-producers; he’s one of those names behind a variety of award-winning artists. He’s what makes the songs tick with modern audiences, he’s the pop in the track, the kick in the beat. Kurstin is an unquestionable master at writing pop songs, and there is certainly a market for appreciating his work, but I feel as though pairing him with Beck couldn’t have been a worse idea.

I can’t tell how much of “Colors” is Beck and how much is Kurstin. Whatever the ratio, I feel as though the collaboration didn’t work on either artist’s strengths.

It’s important to say right-out that I don’t hate “Colors.” I do enjoy it, though I don’t find it as profound as “Morning Phase” was. I have nothing against pop music, and there is a great quantity of it that I enjoy. “Colors,” however, can at times feel overproduced and aimless. It feels at times stuck in the past, reviving sounds that made pop songs chart in the mid-2000s.

One such example of a song stuck in the past is “Seventh Heaven.” It’s undeniably catchy, with a driving beat that’s easy to dance to. If I close my eyes and try, however, I can pretend with a frightening rate of success that it’s a song from Coldplay’s 2011 album “Mylo Xyloto.” The resemblance is uncanny, from the quick percussion that adds up to an overall slow beat, the mystical synthesizer in the background, the washed-up reverb on every instrument, the chorus that soars into the higher pitches of Beck’s range.

Another one of the throwaway pop songs on the record is “I’m So Free,” a song that draws such an early ‘00s feel it’s laughable. The vocoder on Beck’s voice, the simple drum machine building the beat, the sudden shift into a “harder” song with the pre-chorus and the chorus.

This album ends up being worth as much as its four singles were. They were all clearly chosen very carefully, because they all have elements to them that make them worth listening to. They are, in order, “Dreams,” “Wow,” “Dear Life” and “Up All Night.”

Of the four, “Dreams” is the weakest. I described it earlier as overproduced pop, and that’s certainly true, but it at least seems original. The riff seems unique and the background elements don’t feel too contrived and early ‘00s. That all being said, there isn’t much here to write home about. I’ll say that it goes on for a minute too long.

“Wow” is probably the strongest of the singles, if only because it is clearly the most unique. At the time when only “Dreams” and “Wow” were released, trying to imagine what the rest of the album would sound like was impossible. It ultimately sounded more like “Dreams,” a factor that makes “Wow” that much better. “Wow” is Beck’s take on hip-hop, and a clear satire of how he perceives the meaningless lyrics present in modern music. The lines all sound aesthetically pleasing, and they all flow, but they all clearly mean nothing or next-to-nothing. Take the chorus: “Wow / It’s like right now / Wow / Oh wow, it’s like right now.”

These elements make the song appreciable, but the production on the track makes it delectable. He makes great use of drum machines in capturing the hip hop spirit, and even makes his own attempt at rapping. A desolate horn-type effect in the back of the whole song gives it a vaguely Western feel, and he makes great use of vocal harmonies that fill the rest of the space in the background. It’s an incredibly simple song, but it speaks to Beck’s willingness to experiment.

The other two songs, “Dear Life” and “Up All Night” are also good in their own ways. The prior has great piano going for it the whole time, and the post-chorus brings in a delightfully odd and squealy guitar. “Up All Night” has a fantastic beat, built up between differently-pitched cowbells and simple clapping on every second and fourth beat. The addition of synthesized brass section also adds a nice texture that the rest of the album lacks.

It’s no mistake, however, that the album’s best track is “Fix Me.” Why is it the best song? Is it because it sounds most like “Morning Phase?” Is it because it lacks Greg Kurstin, instead the only song on the record that’s fully-written and produced by Beck? It’s all of these.

“Fix Me” is a wonderfully slow, balladic song. Simple, reverb-heavy piano complements some of the album’s only acoustic guitar. The pop elements are still present, such as the classic claps in the drum beat, and the heavy bass synthesizer that brings the background texture to the track, but it does so subtly, setting a wonderful background for Beck’s voice to soar above rather than flounder under. It’s a folk song at heart, and it’s truly beautiful. It helps me realize that Beck is still in there, trapped between a massive record label and an encroaching producer, but he’s still in there.

“Colors” may have, ultimately, been a disappointment, but there’s still some experimentation going on inside. Beck’s trying out a new sound, and I can’t fault him for it. I don’t think it fits him very well, though, and I hope he moves on from it soon. I appreciate what he’s done, and that he’s tried, but the record just didn’t pull together in the quite the right spots. I love the vision, just not the product.

I still have faith in Beck, and I’ll continue to support him. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker