Even as I’ll admit that I’m fairly detached from up-to-the-minute music scene scuttlebutt, it seems to me there’s a surprising lack of enthusiasm or even basic interest around the release of Colors, the new album by Beck. This is an artist who has been a major figure in pop music for around twenty-five years and who is also coming off an album that won him the top prize at the Grammys, joining the small legion of performers who unfairly bested Beyoncé in entertainment award competitions. (Don’t even get me started on Lemonade losing out to whatever drivel Adele hacked up that year.) I understand that taste is fickle and fleeting, but how can Colors be such a minor blip?
I’d like to think it’s because that trophy-nabbing predecessor, Morning Phase, has come under enough sharp enough critical reassessment that the realization has widely dawned that it’s actually a fairly dull affair. That’s probably not it, though. The problem could be the major lag time between the first bubblings of the album, over one year ago, and it’s ultimate release, a circumstance Beck chalks up to a determination that the overall chipperness of the music might not sit all that well in the immediate fallout of a gruesome presidential campaign and even more dire election. Maybe the explanation is yet simpler than that. Colors is bright, frothy, and a little wobbly. Its imperfection can make it seem like a let-down.
Regardless of the purposeful creativity Beck insists he brought to the album, Colors plays like a grab bag of decent ideas executed with a mindset that wavers between playful and mildly disengaged. Arguably, “I’m So Free” is the most emblematic track. It is stuffed full of studio-driven notions and indulges in some pleasingly modern concerns in its passing consideration of digital isolation (“Who am I supposed to be/ In the middle of the day with no good connection?/ I’m so free now”), but there’s a distressing Weezer-ish quality to its basic buzz-pop lope, and the insertion of rapidly jabbered lyrics with a magnetic poetry randomness only delivers greater sabotage.
The minor reworking of early single “Dreams” maintains its joyfully rambunctious embrace of every effective dance music trick, and “Dear Life” nicely splits the difference between Beck’s layered dance music explosions and his more ruminative, Sunday-morning-acoustic side. There are also instances of reasonable curiosity, such as “No Distraction,” which is the sort of track the Police might have come up with had they embraced disco around the time of Ghost in the Machine. Even if they feel a little negligible at first, they have the sonic stickiness that has always distinguished Beck from other quasi-ironic musical tricksters in his alternative rock peer group.
The album is also saddled with more regrettable examples of Beck’s craft. “Fix Me” is drippy and drab, and “Up All Night” sputters along with hints of Avalanches-style manipulated sounds and a groove that strains for the spirit relaxed Prince. Those qualities could be intriguing, achieving the invention-through-appropriation scheme that has lately proven winning for the likes of Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem. Instead, the song sounds recycled, a bit of a shock from one of music’s more iconoclastic figures.
Despite the missteps, there are pleasures to be found on Colors. Beck is a skilled creator, and even uncertain swings of the piñata stick are likely to spill some candy. It’s his thirteenth studio album, after all. Consistent ingenuity can only be expected to last so long. Colors might not be a tremendous event, but some attention should be paid.