If there’s a word to sum up Beck’s musical style, it is eclecticism. Over two decades he has become an alternative rock icon by swerving among genres, from folk to hiphop to the mariachi tunes he heard in the streets of Los Angeles.
Yet his underlying thread was irony. Besides two albums that made pit-stops for sombre self-reflection, Beck has flummoxed three generations of listeners with fantastical wordplay, creating a lyrical universe in which in the time of chimpanzees he was a monkey, and in which Satan gave him (at separate times) a taco and a haircut.
For his 10th studio album, Colors, released on Friday, Beck switched gears again. But this time, he has stitched together the closest he has come to a straightforward pop album.
Colors is Beck’s follow-up to 2014’s Morning Phase, one of his career’s two melancholic turns. Morning Phase won the Grammy for Album of the Year, perplexing Beck as well as much of the music industry as he faced much better-selling artists including Beyonce.
While Morning Phase was stripped-back and lonesome, Colors, true to its name, is about vividness. And the 47-year-old Beck feels liberated.
“I’m so free!” Beck exclaims in a song of the same name in a theme that comes up repeatedly on Colors.
“The way that I walk is up to me now,” he explains.
‘It’s like, wow!’
Beck’s poetic surrealism has not completely vanished. He still sings of cruising the city “in the typical noise with the suntan ellipse” and spotting the “girl in a bikini with a Lamborghini Shih Tzu”.
But the Beck of Colors is one of euphoria rather than irony. “It’s like, wow! It’s like, right now!” he sings on “Wow.”
If not always with his lyricism, Beck on Colors keeps his complexity as a composer. The pop production is packed with multiple layers, with serpentine counter-melodies and seamless transitions among stylistic influences.
I’m So Free, a track that sounds destined to become a live crowd-pleaser, opens with a pop beat before an anthemic chorus that explodes with Nirvana-like guitars.
Dear Life builds off a jazzy piano melody before more textured pop rhythms. The title track on Colors brings together a forest of synthpop effects, while “Wow” is driven by a gritty trap beat.
Beck’s closest-sounding previous venture was 1999’s Midnite Vultures, a playful adaptation of Prince-inspired funk that had marked his follow-up to Odelay, the album that defined his quirkiness and made him a hipster hero.
Beck had announced that his latest album would come out in October 2016, but held Colors for a full year without explanation.
He crafted Colors with Greg Kurstin, who has become one of the music industry’s most sought-after producers for his bold, full-bodied sound and who most famously co-wrote Adele’s massive hit ballad Hello.
Kurstin has a long history with Beck. He had his break in the early 2000s when Beck welcomed him as a keyboardist in his touring band.
The collaboration nonetheless reinforces the sense that Beck, so long a musical iconoclast, felt a need to strive for a more commercial sound on Colors.
The Grammy-winning Beck - born Bek David Campbell, and married with two children - not only sounds more accessible on Colors, he sounds content.
What exactly does he want? He answers on the album, “Just wanna stay up all night with you.”