Beck continues to expand comfort zone in 'Colors'

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 2:35pm

Beck’s new album, Colors, has gotten a lot of buildup.

Part of this comes from the fact that he released the first single, “Dreams,” almost ridiculously early — as in over-two-years-ago early — and the second single a whole year after that. There’s also the fact that he won a Grammy for his last album, Morning Phase, which means that major public attention is focused on him more now than it has been ever since “Loser.”

But one can view Beck’s entire discography as a build up to whatever he’s going to try next. He’s not easy to predict, as a person or as an artist. With certain musicians, it’s easy to get excited about upcoming albums because you’re looking forward to hearing more of what you already know they’re good at. It’s easy to get excited about a new Beck album, too, but for the exact opposite reason: You never know what he’s going to do.

Colors is an electronically inspired pop-rock album, which makes for an interesting follow-up to 2014’s folk-infused Morning Phase. Colors comes at the end of a long line of varied albums, covering genres as diverse as funk, alternative rock, psychedelic rock, hip hop, country and electronica. What Colors ultimately brings to the table is the pop side of Beck, fusing his inclinations for dancefloor rock with his dreamier side in an endeavor that feels perfect for mainstream radio.

The radio aspect is an important one, because it signals a huge change in Beck’s artistic tendencies. His previous efforts have all shared an experimental, off-the-edge sort of quality that, outside of “Loser,” never quite met the bar for Top 40. Songs like “E-Pro,” “Sexx Laws” and “Devil’s Haircut” are lively and built around endlessly catchy riffs, but for some reason, they never really broke that barrier — they’d catch you off-guard thrown on at a party or a radio station. But with songs like “Dreams,” “Wow” and “Up All Night,” Beck might be expanding into the realm of mainstream appeal.

So what are we to make of this? For Beck, whose entire career seems built around the success of his own idiosyncrasy, a pop album might feel surprising — but it shouldn’t. Existing though he may be on the fringe of popularity, Beck employs a certain pattern in his work that can be found in the work of other prolific and talented artists as well known as Bob Dylan: a tendency to explore a new style of music, experimenting, succeeding, growing, taking what he’s learned and carrying it with him into an entirely new sound.

This is its own kind of talent, and as a result, it deserves its own kind of respect. Beck is far from the only artist who does this. Madonna is a great example of another artist who sculpts her musical identity by continuously exploring new ground. What makes this so impressive is that it’s more than exploring: It’s coming to understand a genre that wasn’t as familiar before, well enough to succeed within it. It’s taking a space that may be uncomfortable and carving out of it a space for creativity. Beck did this with alternative rock in Odelay, and with acoustic folk in Sea Change. In Colors, he does it with pop.

And it pays off. You can absolutely tell that it’s Beck, from the energetic, almost angsty beats of “I’m So Free,” “No Distraction” and “Square One” to the lo-fi ethereality of “Fix Me.” We’ve heard the chorus of vocal harmonies before (most notably on Morning Phase), and the authentic guitar section of “Dear Life” doesn’t sound altogether unfamiliar, either. But it also manages to come together and sound new and adventurous. The shifting tones of songs like “Dear Life” and “No Distraction” can be seen as callbacks to Beck’s earlier talents with sample-based production: He knows how to take something we’ve heard before and manipulate it however he wants. As a result, we have an album that showcases his already-established skills in a way that sounds cohesive and, sure enough, colorful.

Maybe this is because it’s Beck’s first really “fun” album since 2005’s Guero, or arguably even 1999’s Midnite Vultures. Or maybe it’s just because it’s Beck, and Beck is always doing something new and adventurous. While some artists thrive for years within their own comfort zones, Beck is constantly expanding his, and with it, his capabilities as an artist. Paradoxically, his comfort zone seems to be in those areas outside his own greatest expertise. Colors is proof that even 20 years into his career, he’s still got plenty of areas left to explore and to experiment with, and he’s looking forward to it.