Beck Colors

[Capitol; 2017]

Styles: pop
Others: Maroon 5, Coldplay, Phil Collins, Ed Sheeran, Black Eyed Peas, Sting

Beck Hansen is an artist who has spent over two decades sculpting his brand by drawing a core identity through endless pastiche, reference, and re-interrogation. As such, it seems unlikely that he would emerge on his 12th full-length with a sound so alien and intentions so indiscernible that he challenges his own chameleonic legacy. The change of tide at work on Colors is unlike the previous shifts that have come to define his career. It’s no transformation; it’s a break.

Looking back at his catalogue, there’s a fold around 2002’s Sea Change, a point most commonly read as evidence of maturation. Slacker-rap/stoner-folk persona dissolves, and Beck moves away from musical expressions of ambivalence and apathy: mellow moods presented with a degree of vulnerability took the place of witty granular genre-play topped by strings of wordplay. (What often goes unremarked is that his once newfound sincerity maintained a masculine invulnerability: guarded, vague, and intentionally obtuse, delivering words that were less playful but equally empty — lyrical Rorschach tests nonetheless).

It’s around the time of this fold that Beck begins the project of revisitation: the development of follow-ups and sequels that entertain the moods and worlds put forth by earlier releases, but treating those worlds with his newly discovered tendency toward self-seriousness. Pitchfork leads off their 2005 review of Guero with the sentiment that “rock’s top chameleon gives the people what they want, drafting in the Dust Brothers to try to recapture his Odelay persona and sound.” Upon reevaluation a year later, however, Dombal’s review of The Information for the same publication remarked that “his track record took a hit with last year’s Guero, the first Beck album that cited Beck as its primary musical influence.” The sentiment was the same, but perhaps a diminishing return was felt at the prospect that Hansen would be stuck in a self-reflexive rut.

This was a fair evaluation at the time. Such self-reflexivity would become the method by which the artist would find the only cohesive universe of vocabulary and style that he has managed a streak with (taking him from Guero (2005) through The Information (2006), Modern Guilt (2008), and the five non-album singles between and following [2007’s “Timebomb” through 2014’s “Gimme”]). Griffin quips in our 2014 review of Morning Phase, “so yeah he’s been talking-not-talking about making ‘sequels’ to albums … he’s made like three odelays now … this is sea change the younger.” Rolling Stone provides grounding for the observation, “[Beck] is working on two new albums — a previously announced acoustic album, plus another album that the source describes as the proper follow-up to Modern Guilt.” That “acoustic album” came to be 2014’s Morning Phase (well-understood to be a follow-up to 2002’s Sea Change) while that “follow-up to Modern Guilt” has yet to be delivered upon or even have received further remark.

It is (at a stretch) viable that Colors began with a development upon the semi-organic groove-oriented Modern Guilt as something like scratch tracks, but the finished product has a much more disorienting precedent. Colors seems to give 1999’s wonky, pre-irony-era masterwork Midnite Vultures the post-fold Beck treatment: cannibalizing the old and spitting out the skeleton, reprocessing explored modes with a shallow sense of sincerity. Colors devours Midnite Vultures for sustenance but puts to waste the wit and charisma that made the 1999 attempt such a worthwhile premise and vibrant listen in the first place.

Hansen’s 1999 mining of 1970s disco-funk for its most decadent tendencies feels significant for its counterintuitive continuation of the post-grunge apathy that animated his early work. That vibrant decadence — subversive for its very magnitude — was born amidst a unrelentingly bubbly age for teen pop. (My favorite super hits from the years surrounding include S Club 7’s “Bring It All Back” (1999), *NSYNC’s “Pop” (2001), Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” (1997), Spice Girls’ “Stop” (1997), and Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” (1999).) This era’s vibrancy has since found inheritors and drafted an unspoken legacy that, from time to time, takes the model to its extreme, outdating the founding objects and distorting the space between aesthetic extremity and mainstream vocabulary. That legacy includes artists both niche and widespread (and the occasional cross-audience sensation). Junior Senior, Andre 3000, of Montreal, Justin Timberlake, Le1f, Janelle Monáe, Die Antwoord, Grimes, Kero Kero Bonito, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Meghan Trainor come to mind as a personal shortlist of artists who have teased of the limits of sensation, excess, acceptability, and unfiltered joy.

Of course, this reading has been gendered. The subversion/irony/surprise that we can pull from works like Midnite Vultures arises partially from the experience of a straight male artist embracing overjoyed aesthetics. The critical reception of these works has been a privileged position when measured against the equally vibrant work of popular female contemporaries. Nonetheless, honest challenges to masculinized traits such as stoicism, joylessness, and aggression seem to sit importantly in this space between sincerity and irony; the minor surprise they deliver is what challenges the construct that has set them up for such an irony.

As such, the collective push of pop vibrancy in the new millennium has provided a context in which Colors fails to surpass the standard of “experimental pop” that it has set forth for itself (Diffuser: “Beck Is Finally Ready to Release ‘Colors,’ Calls the Experimental Pop Album ‘Quite an Undertaking’”) and why the album itself barely surprises or even maintains interest. The version of pop foregrounded on Colors is status-quo male pop with occasional musical tweaks and turns, but with an overarching affect of moderate joy. Nothing about Colors substantially provides evidence of disruption or exploration.

What results is an attempt at fun that is clearly embedded in adulthood-era Beck but fails to acknowledge that distancing context in any substantial way. Pre-release single “Wow” harkens back to the ad-libbing Beck of “Hollywood Freaks,” like a deliberate cameo of past Beck. It comes off as a cheap imitation of his once-convincing delivery. Its refrain — “It’s like ‘Wow’/ It’s like right now” — feels like a self-conscious appeal to the Baldessari-themed pop art sensibility that frames the album and its ephemera.

Other moments cite the economical, meaningless, and humored speak-rap that Junior Senior once employed for its pure functionality (“Sing, sing, sing, sing, sing my song/ And you, you, you, you, you sing along/ Just put, put, put, put my record on/ And all of your troubles are dead and gone”). Beck, however, provides both too much and too little for impact: on the chanted second verse of “Up All Night,” Beck spouts, “1, 2, what you doing?/ I’ve been jumping through some hoops/ Wanna get my body loose/ Wanna tell you, tell you what to do” with little guiding intention; “No Distraction” allows an equally sexless proposition, “Pull you to the left, pull you the right, Pull you in all directions (x2),” hardly convincing of the act itself or the implicit group choreography.

The album’s standout success (and latest single) “Dear Life” succeeds by way of the compositional exercises that were Mutations, The Information, and Sea Change, while delivering a coherent development upon the artist’s style as defined by Modern Guilt. Likewise, the album closes with the unfortunately charming “Fix Me.” This closer laughably bridges the short distance between adult-contemporary Beck and 80s blue-eyed soul balladeers like Spandau Ballet, Tears For Fears, and Bryan Ferry by making the simple addition of synth chimes and the whisper-crooned chorus, “I want you/ I want you/ I want you/ Yeah, I want you.”

While the entirety of Beck’s discography thus far has served to affirm the plasticity and resilience of the ever-adapting persona (the postmodern self that fits the many roles asked of it, reforming taste and substance with the change of time), Colors appears as a breakage, a blemish upon the catalogue. It threatens to tell us more than the affirmation that Beck evolves, grows, reflects, adapts, and outlives change. It tells us that Beck’s musical identity has never really been a export of some deeply personal essence or personage.
Colors dispels a greater notion of contemporary selfhood with its sheer tastelessness. It holds status as the most truly perplexing move from the artist to date. Unfortunately, the result of that move is borderline unlistenable.

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