Out in the Midwest, there’s a saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. A similar aphorism might be made about Beck’s albums. If you don’t like what you hear, come back a few albums later, and he will probably be doing something different.
Beck’s last album, 2014’s “Morning Phase,” was a gorgeously slow and sad contemplation of a breakup. Slight traces of that period are sprinkled through his latest, but the melancholy music is gone, replaced by pure pop indulgence. “Colors” features multitracked vocals and instrumental loops and even hearkens back the nonsensical rapping with which he started his career. This album is escapism, and in no way shy about it.
For the most part, it’s difficult to read too much about Beck Hansen from his lyrical or stylistic choices. His albums don’t seem to lure the listener much below the surface, whether it’s the sloppy funk of “Midnite Vultures” or the L.A. barrio-infused sulk of “Guero.” They are what they are, and Beck goes where he wants to go, often confounding the listener’s expectations but retaining his predictably quirky style in both word and instrumentation.
The best advice is to just plug in the headphones and enjoy the ride, and “Colors” is as close to a mindless pop album as Beck has made in several years. It’s also being marketed to record collectors in different limited editions of red, white, and yellow vinyl, and its songs seem ready-made for quirky ad campaigns, even incorporating their wording. (“It’s so pine fresh,” he sings, on “Dreams.”) This is apparently Beck’s bid for mainstream glory.
“Up All Night,” to take one example, seems to borrow a page from the Bruno Mars songbook. “Dear Life” combines a “Lady Madonna” piano with wah-wah guitar. And “No Distraction” sounds like the love child of Brian Wilson and Jeff Lynne. But there are a few contemplative moments here, too. “I’m almost lost in everything that I know went wrong,” Beck sings in “No Distraction,” and though we’re never quite sure what he might be referring to, it’s clear that these are the reflections of a more mature popster. “I buried all my memories,” he sings in “I’m So Free,” while a female voice (Feist, in a guest appearance) chants in the bridge, “Nobody’s gonna keep me down.”
If “Morning Phase” was Beck’s breakup album, here he sounds refreshed. He’s wounded, sure, but that’s not going to keep him down. The first indication of this was the release of the song “Wow” back in the summer of 2016. That was a side of Beck we’d not heard in a long time, with its insistent siren wail and its Kramer-like exhortations to “giddy up.” It sounded perfect when cranked out of a car stereo. Most of the songs here fit that mold, with nonstick lyrics and a crisp variety of sounds, from the modulated tones of a wood flute in the title track to the grunge guitar bridge of “Dreams.”
The slowest song on the record is the last, “Fix Me,” which sounds almost like a ballad. “Tonight I’m set free,” Beck sings slowly, and one wonders if this might be the direction of his next album. If “Colors” represents Beck’s freedom, where does he go next? “I’m set free,” he sings again, just before the needle lifts up from the end of the record.