On the much-loved sitcom Frasier – you’ve probably seen it when you’re sighing into your morning cornflakes – younger brother Niles is lamenting his lack of rebellious antics. “You’re a good man, Niles,” comforts his titular older sibling. “Surely isn’t that you, well, rebelling against rebellion?” In other words, doing something seemingly straightforward, or removed from exploration or felony, doesn’t necessarily result in something being safe or unadventurous. For Colors, this is a fitting summary.
Beck doesn’t do albums, he does reactions. When he first shrugged onto the scene as a lank-haired, lo-fi troubadour, there was never any indication he would become one of alternative music’s most chameleonic characters. Each album has been a direct contrast to the last – the sample-heavy, era-defining Odelay was followed by the folk-tinged Mutations, which in turn preceded the Prince-esque grooves of Midnite Vultures. After 2014’s Morning Phase dealt in pastoral contemplation, any Beck fan worth their salt will know that Colors is going to plough a completely different furrow.
The premise behind Colors, though, is enough to startle any fan of the pint-sized Scientologist. The idea of Beck going pop has been heard before, but only when the singer has played by his own rules, twisting the convention into his own genre-hopping box. For him to embrace the radio-friendly, supremely polished pop of the current zeitgeist seems strange, risky and ultimately unfulfilling. However, by rebelling against rebelling, and producing something shiny, bright and ready for radio, Beck has beaten the songwriting machines at their own game, producing a record gleaming with hooks, buffed melodies and a much brighter outlook.
Lead single ‘Dreams’, released all the way back in 2015, still leads the charge in terms of quality, a summer cocktail of shuddering guitars, howling vocals and half-rapped deliveries. It also sets the tone for the rest of the record – throughout, Beck’s vocals are bathed in reverb, creating a breathy presence that brings out the best in his oft-used falsetto. Equally as impressive are ‘Up All Night’ and ‘I’m So Free’, despite the rather trite chorus lines (“just wanna stay up all night with you”, “I’m so free for you”). The former glides along on a sweet, twinkling sentiment and an arms-aloft outro, while the latter – with strong backing vocals from Feist – has the sugar rush guitar distortion of power poppers The Wannadies.
Producer of the moment Greg Kurstin understands what makes Beck tick, having worked with Hansen for a number of years in the ‘90s, and thus helps produce a pop record on Beck’s own terms – ‘No Distraction’ sounds like several big 1980s ballads spliced into one, with its reggae-lite guitar coda reminiscent of The Police, while the gently swaying ‘Dear Life’ and the lilting acoustic lullaby of ‘Fix Me’ have the kaleidoscopic beauty of The Beatles. The only track that still feels jarring is the panpipe-addled ‘Wow’, where Beck’s “giddy up” motif is probably not going to frighten the horses.
Colors feels like Beck’s own version of Ryan Adams record Rock N Roll (or, dare we say it, a much better attempt at Liz Phair’s self-titled LP), which was a blatant and tongue-in-cheek attempt to create the most ‘basic’ rock record he could. However, if both lack subtlety in their approach, Beck’s big, bold and pop record still has enough heart and originality to stand out from its contemporaries. “How long must I wait before the thrill is gone?” he asks at one point – if Beck continues to surprise and define his critics, that day will never come.