Several years after Beck hinted at a September 2014 release for his follow-up to Morning Phase, Colors finally arrived, on 13 October 2017 – and, from the first blast of ideas that showered the listener after even the most cursory listen, Beck was clearly focused on delivering a kaleidoscopic, pop-fuelled romp that fully justified the wait.
Beck himself has talked about the endless mixing that followed his initial recording sessions with Greg Kurstin (now a Grammy-winning producer who’s worked with everyone from Sia to Adele, Foo Fighters and Ellie Goulding, but also a multi-instrumentalist who’s played with Beck on and off since 2003), citing over 800 mixes of just one song in the quest for perfection.
An example: released as a single in 2014, ‘Dreams’ was the first taste of how the new album was shaping up, but it appeared in a new guise on Colors: trimmed and punchier, closer to the juggernaut live version that Beck had been performing in the run up to the album’s release. Yet the song’s essence remains the same: upbeat pop with life-affirming lyrics that fully play into his stated intention to make a record for his live band to perform.
That said, they had to be magicians to actually play it all on stage. The density of ideas is almost impossible to parse immediately, but repeated returns to Colors opens hidden trapdoors to fall through – all the more revealed if you strap yourself to a decent stereo and fully enjoy the ride: the effects that ping-pong throughout the opening, title track; the twists and turns as the deceptively casual Beatles pop of ‘Dear Life’ unfurls into a soaring piano ballad; the stop-start refrain (“They pull you to the left/They pull you to the right”) in ‘No Direction’ that manages to simultaneously evoke Bowie’s ‘Fashion’, Devo’s jerky new wave funk and a euphoric blast of hands-in-the-air pop abandon, meshing them into one seamless whole.
Which is where the pop-rock-funk-hip-hop chameleon had been headed for some time: working out how best to erase the joins between his endless collage of ideas. Individually, each song is its own cornucopia: ‘Wow’, by Beck’s own account thrown out pretty quickly towards the end of Colors’ completion, still contains a rap that alludes to demons engaged in a phone conversation, al fresco jiu-jitsu, and a “girl in a bikini with a Lamborghini shih tzu”; musically, it straps a spaghetti Western slide whistle to sparse trap beats and a sunshine-pop chorus. It recalls the controlled chaos of Midnite Vultures and yet sits comfortably between the contemporary pop euphoria of ‘Dreams’ and ‘Up All Night’.
If the Grammy-winning success of Morning Phase brought a host of new fans drawn to yet another one of Beck’s beautifully crafted, if low-key, masterpieces, Colors’ closing track, ‘Fix Me’, anchored any of those blindsided by the rush of the preceding nine songs. Its mournful piano and plaintive lyrics are straight out of the Sea Change/Morning Phase songbook, though the song is less a comedown, more a recalibrating after the immersive rush that preceded it.
Beck may or may not have synaesthesia, but on this evidence, Colors drove him to a whole new world of inventive pop. Well over two decades into his career, he continued to find new ways to surprise.
Buy Colors here.
Follow the Beck: Best Of playlist for more essential Beck songs.