Beck’s Colors: An electronic extravaganza muddled in mediocrity

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Beck’s Colors: An electronic extravaganza muddled in mediocrity

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Colors, the latest album from American singer-songwriter Beck, was released this past Friday. Although Beck is known as a pathfinder in off-kilter rock, Colors showcases a bold foray into modern pop rock, to varying degrees of success.

In the year 1994, after releasing a series of underground mixtapes, Beck became a household name with the unexpected runaway success of his song “Loser”. Exhibiting an incomparably surreal wit in lyricism and a genre-tinkering talent of making even the most scattered sonic palettes sound cohesive, Beck became a darling of the ’90s alternative rock scene. He is retrospectively hailed as one of the most creative and truly one-of-a-kind artists of the 1990s and 2000s, as well as an example of blistering postmodernism in music. On one given album from him, you may hear a blend of influences from folk rock, hip-hop, blues, electronica, country, funk, and more.

Beck’s final album of the 2000s, the psychedelic Modern Guilt, was followed by a six-year hiatus before he returned with Morning Phase, a lush folk rock album made as a companion to his last endeavor in the genre, 2002’s Sea Change. The album won several awards at the 2015 Grammy Awards, including the Album of the Year award, beating out fierce competition from Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams, Sam Smith, and–to the most amount of surprise–Beyoncé.

“For an artist so widely known for his oddities, Colors shows Beck achieving an exhausting normalcy.”

Colors is an album four years in the making, with its earliest lead single coming out over two years before the album’s release. It functions nearly as an antithesis of Morning Phase–the sunshine following the storm, to coin a phrase–but it’s certainly not any less intriguing. In a first for Beck, the album gallops on the heels of the energetic, radio-friendly pop rock sound of the modern day, but with its own oddball edge.

The album spontaneously kicks into action from the get-go with its opening track, the title track, and leaves little room to breathe for its 40-minute runtime. This energy permeates the album so thoroughly that even its more laidback songs (“Dear Life”, “Fix Me”, etc.) still carry a considerable spring in their step. As Beck’s voice floats above the music, a mix of coalescing instruments punches underneath. This mix is mainly made up of delicate and heavy guitars, lively pianos, snapping drums, and bubbly synthesizers, plus an occasional use of a more eccentric instrument like the pan flute.

For all of the feverish fervor that it entails, Colors reinvents Beck’s character to varying degrees of success–and most alarmingly, at the cost of a compromise of his artistic integrity. The traditional quirky lyrics and sonic charm that you would expect from a Beck project do receive slivers of limelight, although they mainly find themselves taking a backseat while the normality of the new pop rock sound forms the meat and potatoes.

By centering around this sound, the album renders itself mostly devoid of variety, and the sounds of one song tend to bleed into the next. It’s like being forcefed cookies; it’s appealing initially but grows tiresome quickly. Some examples include “Dear Life” and “Square One”, which run on the exact same piano, and “Colors” and “I’m So Free”, which are both “wait for the drop and jump around”-type songs that I’m sure will be rotated heavily by DJs at middle school dances in the near future.

Beck’s trademark genre-hopping is not nearly as prevalent on this album, save for “Wow”, an experimental trap song that easily represents the album at its worst and most freakish. (Reportedly, Beck had little faith in how the public would respond to the song, but was persuaded to release it by his children–which explains a lot, really.) Ergo, there’s very little separating Colors from the glut of pop rock music in this day and age. For an artist so widely known for his oddities, Colors shows Beck achieving an exhausting normalcy–but perhaps this is the way it was intended to be.

While its modernized sound may form a bitter taste in the mouth of the average radio disparager (such as myself), within me rests a reluctance to call Colors the sign of a sellout, although its status as a pop album skates a thin line between a cash grab and an aftermath of examining the ins and outs of a new genre. Some have analyzed Colors as akin to a college professor’s analysis of pop, stripping its sounds down on an analytical level. It seems like a genius move, but the album blurs the line between gleeful self-awareness and feeding into the genre’s uniformity to a frustrating extent.

In the end, Colors is an underwhelming album by the standards of Beck and perhaps even by the standards of pop rock. It’s as much of a brash experiment as Beck’s other albums–and can perhaps be praised in that light–but has a substantial lack of the unconventional allure that he is known for. It brings to mind a quote from the late film critic Gene Siskel: “A film that aims low should not be praised for hitting that target.” Ultimately, the main problem I have walking away from the album is not that it’s bad–it just could’ve been a lot more.


Featured image from Capitol Records