Much like the chocolate boxes of Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to Beck (unlike chocolate boxes in real life, which are clearly labeled). He’s a tough artist to pin down: a rapper, an Americana singer, a low-key alternative rocker. Beck doesn’t so much think outside the box as he just lives outside it, and it’s made his career an exciting one to follow. Beck’s previous album, Morning Phase, found harmony between understated acoustic guitar plucks and the uneasy ambiance of soaring strings. All in all, the 2014 album stood out as one of Beck’s finest achievements, which created an ineludible disadvantage for this year’s follow-up Colors.
In contrast to Morning Phase, Colors is exuberant and rejuvenative. Consider Beck’s career at the time—2008’s Modern Guilt officially fulfilled Beck’s record contract with Interscope Records, and he would remain without a record label for nearly seven years. Morning Phase, released under Capitol Records, was Beck’s triumphant return to the music scene, and the large-scale success of the album (including a Grammy win for Album of the Year) kickstarted a second phase of Beck’s career.
“There was a very strong positive feeling that was happening while we were making [Colors], this renewed appreciation and affection for playing music,” Beck told NME earlier this month. And renewed he sounds, with sprightly warmth and buoyant spirit nestled in his vocal chords, a far cry from the unflappable slacker messiah of the ‘90s. Colors is, first and foremost, a splashy dance rock record, something Beck has never really done before. But unlike most of his albums, what’s fresh for Beck isn’t necessarily fresh overall; Colors is catchy and glossy, but it gets by far more on Beck’s talents as a performer than a songwriter.
It’s not unlike Kanye West’s approach to the grimy, industrial Yeezus: anomalous and interesting to his personal discography, but not particularly standout in its own genre. That is to say that Colors, even at its best, still only functions as an imitation. The title track and “Dreams” sound like auditions for MGMT. “Up All Night” is everything Maroon 5 dreams of being. “Seventh Heaven” and “Square One” elicit warm memories of Phoenix’s terrific Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. As a listener and critic, I’m torn between the album’s conventionality and its enrapturing, undeniable liveliness—that difficult dichotomy between songwriter and performer that seems to define much of Colors.
Beck manages to pepper a few of his own signature quirks into the album. “I’m So Free” brushes a sleek pop coating over the rapping on the bridge and hard guitars on the chorus, signatures of a ‘90s alt-rock Beck project. “Wow” goes for broke on Beck’s alternative hip-hop roots, combining his laid-back delivery with a funky trap instrumental. Beck himself was reluctant to put “Wow” on the album, unsure if people would like it, and expressed surprise when the studio decided to release it as a single last year. “Wow” is all over the place lyrically, and on some listens, it comes across to me as corny and unfocused, other times fun and imaginative. And while I don’t know if I can dislike any song that finds a context (read: excuse) for rhyming “jiu jitsu” with “shih tzu,” it doesn’t feel like Beck’s lax delivery has aged particularly well. On the other end of the musical spectrum, “Dear Life” is a Morning Phase joint jolted to great life with the pop rock lifeblood of The Beatles.
Beck is more than excused for wanting to take a victory lap after Morning Phase revitalized his love of performance. Beck the performer is at his A-game here, charismatic and elastic as always. But Beck the songwriter, more often than not, fails to make an imprint on the genre in a lasting or meaningful way. Now and again, that’s permissible. Following a long career of taking musical risks, sometimes an artist needs to just play. Because for all of the time spent traversing the territories outside of convention, one of the marks of a great performer is a willingness to use what works and return to the inside of the box. Every once in a while, there’s something sweet (and clearly labeled) inside.