An odd thing happened when Beck’s Morning Phase won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2015: he got Kanye’d. As he was walking up to accept his gramophone trophy from Prince, the outspoken rapper started to follow him onstage, feigning a reprise of his infamous 2009 stage-crashing of Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards. Beck reacted like you might expect the king of ’90s slackerdom to, looking like a shruggy emoticon come to life. No surprise that, unlike Swift, Beck didn’t use the moment to fuel his follow-up album, Colors.
In fact, this new record has been gestating since before Morning Phase, when Beck started carving out time with Greg Kurstin, now a mega-producer for pop stars like Adele and Sia. The two have been collaborators for years. (Kurstin was Beck’s keyboardist for the 2003 Sea Change tour.) But Colors is something more: Beck and Kurstin wrote a majority of the 10 songs together and played pretty much every instrument you hear, except for the strings and some background vocals.
The result is antithetical to the somber arrangements of Morning Phase. Beck’s acoustic melancholy is replaced with a medley of psychedelic garage pop and funky dance numbers. It’s all very joyous. Colors feels like a cousin to earlier albums Midnite Vultures (1999) and Guero (2005). On “No Distraction,” Beck laments losing time and love as they “Pull you to the left/ Pull you to the right/ Pull you in all directions,” but on the fuzzy guitar number “I’m So Free,” he takes the opposite route, declaring, “I’m on a one-man waiting list/ I’m bored again/ I buried all my memories/ I’m so free now.” On “Dreams” and “Seventh Heaven,” he fully embraces surrealism, a longtime comfort zone. “Up All Night” is a crowd-pleasing party anthem.
If there’s a standout song, it’s the album’s second single, “Wow,” released in June 2016. At first listen, it’s utterly ridiculous. Beck begins by exclaiming “Giddy up” four times, before moving into a slow, oozy funk beat over which he repeatedly croons, “It’s like wow/ It’s like right now.” There’s a line about living your best life. And one about living each day like it’s your last. And another about living each day like you’re on your front lawn doing jiujitsu while a “girl in a bikini with a Lamborghini shih tzu” is nearby. It’s borderline nonsensical. But it’s also vintage weird Beck, rearing his head for our weird times.
Which is really what Colors should be. Beck’s best albums have never really been about the micro-eras they were made in. (He’s not the type to pontificate.) But they were thoroughly shaped by them and, in retrospect, manage to capture some of their essence, like a time capsule for vibes. Midnite Vultures was a fun-house mirror of the gonzo excess of the late ’90s; Guero an expression of renewed vigor in the mid-2000s. We’ll have to wait and see whether Colors, down the line, will tell us what it was like to live through this reality-television presidency and all its various anxieties.
For now, it’s just a lot of fun. Colors shows that Beck is still the type of artist who can spend years carefully crafting songs and have them feel rather timeless right away–even in a time of joyless news cycles. In any case, if you escape into Beck’s kaleidoscope for 40 minutes, you too may believe that life can be “like wow.”